What I Saw and How I Lied
By Judy Blundell
2008. 281 pages.
Before I review What I Saw and How I Lied, a quick word about reviewing YA books. I do not work with young adults nor do I aspire to work with them, so my reviews of YA novels aren’t going to address how appropriate the book is for that audience. Other book bloggers do that much better than I ever could.
But we all know that plenty of adults read YA books, so I figure it’s valid to review a YA book from that perspective. Maybe we’re not the labeled audience, but we’re an audience of them all the same.
So, is What I Saw and How I Lied a book that I – an adult – enjoyed? Well, yes, for most of the time, until the ending. What made me take to the book right off was its great sense of style. The novel is set soon after the end of World War II, and the 15-year-old protagonist, Evie, makes numerous references to the movies and celebrities of the time. And the book does a good job of evoking the 1940’s movies: the way the characters talk, the way events unfold. Evie’s narration has some of the snap of that cinematic dialogue.
I knew Grandma Glad considered minding me as her patriotic duty, right up there with hoeing our Victory Garden. Tomatoes and her son’s stepdaughter – we both broke her back.
The book is basically a noirish melodrama, bringing to mind the film Mildred Pierce (1945) particularly. Evie’s stepfather, Joe, comes back from the war like a man with a secret. He whisks Evie and her mom down to Palm Beach for a vacation where, in the one hotel open off-season, they meet another glamorous couple as well as an old army acquaintance of Joe’s named Peter. Evie quickly falls in love with the handsome 23-year-old Peter who acknowledges her as an adult, unlike her parents.
But Evie’s attraction to Peter is just one part of the mass of desires and unsaid things that charges the main characters’ interactions. Everyone has something to hide.
The noir atmosphere is successfully achieved, though perhaps it makes the coming-of-age element less resonant. When a character’s life is like a movie, it decreases its relatability. What is funny is that Evie will comment on something that she sees happen and say that it is like a movie. Very meta.
Where the book lost me is in its climactic scenes near the end, especially when one of the characters must stand trial. I felt like the book surrendered its carefully built style and atmosphere to the overly familiar and unoriginal paces of the courtroom drama. I wish the author hadn’t taken that route because it tipped the balance: Evie’s life fully becomes like a melodramatic movie. And I’m not really a fan of melodramatic movies, so that was a negative turn in the narrative for me.
What I Saw and How I Lied won the National Book Award so it is obviously a book that has the capacity to wow its readers. I’m not one of them, but I can see the stand-out qualities (that style) that would make people sit up and take notice.