Monday, May 7, 2012

Review: Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

The story of Liar and Spy is told by Georges, a seventh grade boy named after Georges Seurat (more about the paintings of Georges Seurat in a minute).  There's something wrong with Georges, but you can't put your finger on what it is. 
I mean, there are some obvious things that are wrong: Georges' father has lost his job and the family is downsizing to an apartment, Georges' mother is always at work, his old best friend has upgraded to the cool table, and a school bully has it in for him.

But there's something else.  Something that's making Georges' teachers watch him closely.  Something that his dad talks about in a whisper on the phone at night.

Then there's Safer.  He's a boy in Georges' new apartment building who may or may not be a good candidate for new best friend.  Safer is obsessed with spying on a "Mr. X" who lives on the fourth floor.  While at first Georges is amused by Safer's attempts to teach him spy skills, he begins to question the ethics of some of Safer's techniques.

Although Georges never uses the words "question the ethics," it doesn't seem outside his vocabulary.  Georges is an unusually distant, philosophical seventh grade boy.  When the bully puts his foot on Georges' chest, Georges casually unbalances the boy by pushing his foot in the air.  To the reader he says: "It's a harmless bounce.  I would never want to hurt him.  I know that all of this will soon be a distant memory for both of us.  But pain is pain, and I would just as soon avoid it."  Now, this doesn't sound like any seventh grade boy I know, and while I feel like this strange gentleness is partly explained by the unspoken "something" in Georges' life, I also feel like the narrative is missing an essential seventh-grade-boy-like quality.

Nevertheless, I like Georges, and I like Rebecca Stead's writing.  Like E.L. Konigsburg and Ellen Potter, Rebecca Stead creates strangely timeless characters, who may use cell phones but who also have such particular interests (spying, collecting odd candy, reforming the spelling of the English language) that they could exist in almost any historical setting*. 

In fact, there's something just a little old fashioned about this novel that I think will give it great appeal for young readers who read above their grade level and the parents who worry about what they're reading.  I think I would have loved this book as a child, particularly because despite the ominous Mr. X and the mean school bully, nothing really bad happens.  By the time we learn what the "something" is that is bothering Georges, the danger has already passed.

Of course as an adult, I found this strangely disappointing.  I felt like the book pulled a punch on me, and I didn't get the catharsis I was expecting.  But after some reflection, I feel differently.  This is a book about games.  There's the game of Capture the Flag that becomes a bonding experience for the less popular kids.  There's the game of writing notes with Scrabble tiles that Georges plays with his mother.  And there are two other games, both of which are played on the reader and one of which is played on Georges. 

Thus at the climax of the novel, there's a feeling of being tricked rather than a feeling of catharsis.  But the message of the book isn't that it's wrong to play games.  Rather the novel shows how games can be coping mechanisms, ways of acting out some hidden desire or fear until you're ready to face it in real life. 

While I was surprised by the peaceful ending of the story, there are actually a number of motifs that should have tipped me off.  There's the motif of birds returning to the sky or their nests, and of course, there's the Seurat print.  It hangs above Georges' couch and Georges' mother explains to him that, like the dots in the painting, the good and bad moments in your life come together to make a beautiful picture.  You could say something similar about the scenes in this book.  And if the scenes come together a little too beautifully and if the narrative is a little too dreamlike, well, I like a little reality in my fantasy and a little fantasy in my reality.  And it seems I can rely on Rebecca Stead to deliver both of those things.

*Side note: I didn't find any textual evidence for what race the characters in the story are.  The only physical descriptions I found were that Safer's sister has straight dark hair and Georges' dad wears glasses with rectangular black frames.  Since in her last book, Rebecca Stead dealt with race directly, I found myself assuming the characters were white, but there's nothing stopping you from imagining them any color you like.

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