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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
Kiersten White

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity - Elizabeth Wein

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


***Really, seriously, Code Name Verity will be irrevocably spoiled for you.***


***Also, this discussion won't even make any sense if you haven't read it.***


***Okay? Okay, here we go...***


Code Name Verity is a beautiful book, and well deserving of its Printz honor, but no one will be surprised to hear that I think it has flaws. Let's just agree, shall we, that it was an insanely difficult book to write, that Elizabeth Wein should get loads of praise for producing such an ambitious, lovely tribute to friendship, and that my comments are Monday-morning quarterbacking, pure and simple?

One of the largest problems is the epistolary format of the book. The conceits that Julie is writing her confession on scraps of paper for von Linden, and Maddie is writing an accident report from the loft of a barn while she's behind enemy lines were not believable. Rather, I felt that Wein was attempting to construct a tour de force via narrative calisthenics. Julie's narrative was not possible: von Linden would not have allowed her to essentially write a novel about her youth with Maddie. She didn't include enough "confession" in each chapter for me to believe he'd allow it to continue for so long. A friend suggested that maybe it should have been a transcript of oral interrogations, and I think that would have been more appropriate, but obviously would have limited the novel-style digressions (which only serves to point out how much they don't fit). Also, about twice in Julie's story I squirmed because the fact of Julie's writing about her captors to her captors didn't work. (I wish I had marked them; they had a common trait that made them not work). And what about Maddie's impromptu accident report? She tells us several times that if her notes got into enemy hands before she was rescued, they would have implicated Julie's grandmother. Is this a risk Maddie would have taken? No, it's not likely with both her training and her understanding of just how grave a situation everyone is in, and so it draws too much attention to the conceit. 
There seemed to be one genuine mistake in the book: we never learned how Maddie's and Julie's IDs were switched before the drop into France. Maddie sort of waves her hands about how it's similar to the incident at the airfield, but it's not, because given where we saw them at every step before the drop, the switch appeared to me to be physically impossible. This is a potentially serious narrative flaw, because we're told that Julie would in all likelihood not have been picked up by the Gestapo if her papers had been in order.


And now to the unfortunate scene on the bridge, which is what makes everyone cry, but made me shake my head. It's just not possible for a person who has been shooting a gun for only several weeks to be a marksman like that. And even if Maddie were the most gifted shot ever--which is still an inaccurate premise, because all things like marksmanship are a matter of practice and not talent-- her shots were taken 1. in the dark, 2. from below, 3. through the scrub on the bank of a bridge, 4. using a handgun, not a rifle.
So the chain thing? Impossible. (But also pointless for the plot. Those two prisoners quickly get ferried off by the resistance.) And then the shot to Julie's head? Double impossible. I sympathize that Wein wanted an exciting climax, and wanted to tie it together with the aunt's story, to make a point that it was deep love that allowed Maddie to do this thing that was abhorrent to her. And perhaps she wanted Maddie's first successful effort (the miraculous chains shot) to be her reassurance that euthanizing Julie was worth attempting because she actually had a chance of pulling it off. But the more realistic way, the only plausible way to write this scene, would have been to have Maddie do a messy, imperfect job of the killing, but still have it somehow result in Julie's death. I haven't thought alternatives through carefully, but maybe Maddie could have mortally wounded Julie with the first shot, or failed to hit her and caused the Nazis to finish Julie more perfunctorily than they were planning, in a panic, or we could have seen one or more resistance fighters follow-up on Maddie's botched shot, seeing that Julie was down, and add their shots to her body. Just something that's not impossible, please. Here's the scene:
Turned her face away from me to make it easier.
And I shot her.
I saw her body flinch--the blows* knocked her head aside as though she'd been thumped in the face. Then she was gone.
*Here we see"blows," plural. Earlier in the book Maddie makes a point more than once of telling us she learned to double-tap, and she deliberately shoots the chain twice as well. But again, Julie's body would have crumpled instantaneously on the first shot, making the second shot in the same spot impossible.
The "clean shot" soothes the reader that this is a mercy killing. But of course killing Julie at all at that moment is already genuinely merciful. I worried that Wein wanted readers to be able to comfort themselves not just about the fact that Julie didn't suffer, but also about Maddie's emotional recovery for the rest of her life. Wein wanted the reader to think, "Maddie will be able to forgive herself, because Julie didn't suffer." Taking care of her readers in that way doesn't really trust us, though.
Perhaps this whole unfortunate bridge scene is the insidious influence of movies on novels: we think there has to be a cinematic climax, and we forget that it should feel real, too. In fact, I found myself questioning the whole bridge denouement--would the resistance have just waited for the Nazis to bring their reinforcements? I may be wrong, but my instinct is not. I think they would have abandoned the mission to protect themselves and their Damask cell, as soon as it became clear the enemy had sent for help. (I'm wondering whether I should blame the extravagance of the bridge scene on Wein's daughter, who is given credit in the acknowledgments: "My daughter Sara suggested some of the more harrowing plot twists.")
I don't agree with any of the reviewers on Goodreads who say there was too much piloting and plane details  and other "specialized knowledge." These sections were perfectly understandable, even for a non-pilot, and the actual number of words devoted to technical details was tiny if you were to snip them out and count them. It's ridiculous to think that any other period details (ration coupons, blackout shades, whatever) are "too much" for a historical novel. Other than the ballpoint pen, which I thought smacked of fondness for her research, Wein's period details were perfect.
Three other tiny things:
1. It's possible for a novel to fit too perfectly together, so that it feels constructed: Jamie showing up so often at the right time, the Thibauts, Julie's grandmother.
2. I would not have chosen to have von Linden kill himself. I know Wein wanted us to understand that he did experience intense internal conflict, that he was in some sense still just a headmaster who had been carried away by events into cruelty, that he couldn't in the end live with himself. But we didn't need his story to wrap up "on camera." His conflict about Julie was already so masterfully done (really remarkable, the way you could subtly see that he admired Julie) that it seemed heavy-handed to "tell" us he was conflicted in the end. An astute reader will know that von Linden's end was (historically) not going to be good: his headquarters got destroyed, he had failed the Gestapo, and the Germans were losing the war. He was already a goner.
3. I didn't buy the very tiny scene where Maddie encounters von Linden at the end, and can't control herself not to openly grit her teeth at him (no matter how much she hated him, her fear would have overridden her anger). And then Anna Engel jabs her in the ankle, which is another movie trope--one usually reserved for slapstick--because how can anyone do that without the person they're talking to noticing?