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Merle

Merle

Code Name Verity - Elizabeth Wein This is one of those books that's almost impossible to talk about without revealing plot elements, and that's most enjoyable to discover as you go. So, if you think you'd like a young-adult novel starring two women--one a pilot, one an intelligence officer--in WWII, and you don't like spoilers, you should probably avoid all reviews (mine included) and just read it.

Now for the review.

Overall, Code Name Verity is an enjoyable book. The story is gripping, with tension and danger throughout--naturally enough, as one of the protagonists spends the book as a Nazi prisoner. The characters are fairly vivid, and I enjoyed reading about a pair of tough, capable women. I was unaware of the role of women pilots in England's Air Transport Auxiliary during the war, and so especially enjoyed reading about Maddie's advancement as a pilot. The author, a pilot herself, does a great job of communicating her love of flight, and her clear knowledge of planes adds verisimilitude. Wartime England and occupied France are both brought to life, and the writing style is adequate without drawing attention to itself.

Two problems then. First, I liked the idea of the main characters' friendship better than its depiction; they seem to leap right from getting acquainted to undying sisterhood, with readers missing a step somewhere along the way.

Second, there are the myriad problems with the epistolary format. The first 2/3 or so of the book is supposed to be written by Julie, the captured intelligence officer, as a "confession" for her captors. Unreliable narrators are fun and this keeps the reader guessing. But for the premise to work, we must believe that 1) the Nazi captain is such a lover of literature that he doesn't mind that his prisoner's "confession" is actually a novel-length narrative weaving together her own day-to-day life as a prisoner and her best friend's wartime experiences, and 2) despite that, he's too dense to realize that she's not telling the truth--even though the third sentence of her account is "I have always been good at pretending," even though she paints herself as a gutsy con artist throughout and admits to making up details. That's a lot to swallow. I'd figured out much of what Julie was hiding halfway through her narrative--for instance, that she liked the translator much more than she let on--and had a hard time believing someone whose job is getting the truth out of prisoners wouldn't have figured her out too. Wein just does not handle well the tension between an author's need to give hints to the reader of what's really going on, and Julie's need to write a completely convincing document. Interspersing Julie's story with other documents could have arrived at the same result without making both her and her captors look stupid.

Maddie narrates the last third, and the premise here doesn't make much sense either--she writes most of it in hiding in France, where if found her writing would endanger not only her but the family sheltering her. The two characters' voices sound alike, and the voice doesn't quite fit either of them: too refined for Maddie the working-class mechanic, not refined enough for the ultra-privileged Julie, and too young for either. (Their voice reminded me of Cassandra Mortmain in [b:I Capture the Castle|31122|I Capture the Castle|Dodie Smith|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312011462s/31122.jpg|950769], and she isn't much like either of them.) In both cases their styles are also too novelistic to be plausible--complete with dialogue, scenes, etc.

There are some plot details, too, that don't add up. Like, Julie's getting captured because she looked the wrong way when trying to cross a street. It must have been a two-way street, or it wouldn't matter what side of the road cars use in that country, but then, why would she only look one way if she was crossing a two-way street? And then, why are the Allies willing to put so many resources into bombing an empty building? It seemed like the author felt Julie needed to be vindicated somehow, and using her intelligence to destroy the hotel did that. Except, the Nazis can always just requisition another building. So what was the big deal? But, in the end, Code Name Verity is a competent book that I would have enjoyed much more at age 14 than as an adult. It's very young-adult, in everything from pacing to plot elements to the characters' voices, and I wonder why Wein chose that route, given that the protagonists are women in their 20s whose stories would suit an adult book just fine (despite that, they're rather jarringly referred to as "girls" throughout, perhaps to make them seem closer to the intended audience's age).

So, do I recommend the book? Maybe. Despite the glowing reviews, I found nothing mindblowing about it. But if you typically enjoy YA and are willing to engage in a lot of suspension of disbelief around the premise, chances are you'll love it.