Thursday, August 21, 2014
This month, book club read Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. I read and loved this quite a while ago, and I was excited to get a chance to talk about it. My fellow clubbers were not as excited about it as I was, though they mostly liked it. It definitely ended up on that list of books that weren't bad, but didn't give us a lot of conversational fodder.
Which also means this reader's guide will be pretty short. They're some of the things that I was thinking about on this read-through, along with points that were made at book club. It's funny how I am never surprised or thrown off when someone else doesn't have the same feelings or opinion about a book as I do, but I am surprised when they have different perceptions or expectations.
1) This book has been much reviewed and discussed in the blogosphere, and it's generally known to have a "twist" in the middle. Did you see the twist coming? Do you even think it was a twist, or was it more of a reveal? What's the difference?
2) What expectations did you have going into the book? The cover blurb tells you that two women crash in occupied France--this small amount of information removes some tension that would exist if you were reading blind (which I did the first time; I had an ebook with no cover blurb). Between cover information and other background knowledge, how was your perception of the book affected by what you knew before going in?
3) Related, what do you think of this cover? This was the cover when I first read it, though I don't think it's current now. The cover led some of my fellow clubbers to expect the story to take a romantic turn, possibly even a sexual one.
4) Springing from that, what do you think about Julie and Maddie's friendship? "It's like falling in love, finding your best friend." Julie says they would never have been friends if not for the war; even if they had, do you think this type and intensity of friendship is ever replicated outside of wartime?
5) Do you think Maddie and Jamie end up together? (There's info on that in Wein's companion book, Rose Under Fire, so I know the answer, but it was a discussion at book club.)
6) This is one I've thought about a lot, and it applies to a lot of books. When you have a book where the narrator's reason for telling the story is part of the narrative--basically a story that is being written by one of the characters, as opposed to just "told"--there's a certain stylistic bar that needs to be cleared. This is true in epistolary novels, books that are structured as diaries, and book like this, where the narrator sitting down and writing the account is part of the account. The fact of voice is a huge deal in a book like that, because real letters and diary entries don't sound like novels, and very few people actually writing their life story are going to sound like they're writing a novel.
The way I see it, there are two problems faced by a writer working like this. First, providing information to the reader of the novel in a way that is narratively pleasing while remaining authentic to the in-story writer's intent. Like, when I sit down to write in my diary about the day Something Big happened, I probably don't start with all the details of how it was an ordinary day and I ate breakfast, etc. Honestly, in my diary I start with the BIG point and then maybe backtrack to details, but there's no tension in a diary entry, because I'm writing for someone (me) who already knows the end of the story. Similarly, if I write a friend to tell them Something Big happened, I make an announcement. I'm not likely to draw it out with a detailed account that leads up to it. Maybe some people do, but I don't. So it's on the author to come with a voice that seems to be someone who would authentically write like that.
The second problem is related--backstory. Someone writing in their diary is not going to describe the fight they had with X today while giving details of the history of their friendship with X, and info about X's parents and history and all the info that the reader needs. Some of that info might come up peripherally (I mean, I know her mom is critical, but that doesn't mean blah blah blah), but you're not going to find a way to get an incident from years ago that informs this one into the document.
Verity solves that by making Julie a) a very literary writer, who b) is purposefully rambling. There are in-story explanations for why she wants to give so much detail and history and go over every bit--self-comfort, stretching the time out, and other, below-the-surface reasons. Maddie, on the other hand, is a blunter, more practical person, and while her writing because she has literally nothing else to do makes some sense, I think the image slips more here. Wein does a good job using a different voice, but she does get into narrative parts and it starts to sound like a novel, and not like what Maddie would write.
And heaven help us, one of my pet peeve lines in literature is "I have to write this down or I'll go crazy" or forget, or it won't seem real. If you have to tell me that, it's because you know I'm not quite buying it.
So to summarize the question: how does the semi-epistolary nature of the novel work for you?
It's really my one critique--I don't mean to sound like I hold it against the book. I love the book, and I love how Maddie's cold hard facts reveal so much about the truths behind Julie's narrative. Really, though, I just love Maddie and Julie, and that they have each other and love each other. I've read a million World War II books, and I think this one might have touched me the most.