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What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

September 15, 2010
Cover of "What I Saw And How I Lied"

Cover of What I Saw And How I Lied

The beautiful cover of What I Saw and How I Lied attracted me way back when it was first published in hardcover, but it took me a long time to pick it up and read it. I would like to add that in addition to being a nice cover, the image of a girl putting on bright red lipstick turns out to be terribly relevant to the story. So, a nice pat on the back for Scholastic. The time period of the 1940s is one of my favorites, so I was looking forward to reading this book. Not many authors write about the post-war period, especially Teen authors, so this book was like a double treat. I expected to fully enjoy this book—after all, it won the National Book Award in 2008—and I’m sorry and, perhaps embarrassed to say that I didn’t. Now comes the hard part: explaining why.

The first reason that I did not like What I Saw is because I was hard pressed to find a character I enjoyed. It wasn’t Evie. It wasn’t her mother or her stepfather. It sure wasn’t Peter. It wasn’t Wally or even Grandma Glad. This, right off the bat, is a terrible way to read a novel. I thought, at first, that Evie was going to improve—this is, after all, a coming-of-age story. It’s the kind of book where you can expect to dislike some aspect of the character’s personality. The problem was, I never moved past my initial dislike. I didn’t like Evie at the end of the book any more than I liked her in the beginning. In fact, I thought she was kind of an idiot. For the next part of my review, I’m issuing a spoiler warning, so beware!

*     *     *     *     *     SPOILER     *     *     *     *     *

Judy Bundell paints (or tries to paint) Evie as a young, naïve character. There are things going on all around Evie that she fails to understand. For example, her mother is sleeping with the man that Evie has a crush on. Her stepfather is not as financially secure as he has led Evie to believe. There is Anti-Semitism in the world. Gah! The things that Evie doesn’t know could fill a book—oh, they have already, haven’t they?

Let me give you the general plot line: Evie is a fifteen-year-old girl from Queens. It’s 1947 and her stepfather has return from Europe and the war and started chain of stores that sell household appliances. One day Evie’s stepfather, Joe, decides to take the family to Florida for a late summer vacation. When they get there, Evie, her mother and Joe make friends with the Graysons, a stylish couple that owns a hotel in New York. They also meet young ex-GI Peter Coleridge, on whom Evie immediately develops a crush. Unbeknownst to Evie (who thinks that Peter returns the instant attraction) her mother and Peter begin an affair. Though Evie views her mother as cover for her daily car rides with Peter, she doesn’t realize that she is the one who is the third wheel. There is also the fact that there is some thinly veiled animosity between Peter and Joe. Finally, Evie is struggling with the fact that she has always lived in the shadow of her beautiful, glamorous mother. She is struggling to have the confidence in herself to become the woman she wishes she were.

I was fine with Evie struggling to find herself. I could understand her desire for a man who was a man and not a boy. What I didn’t buy was that she was too naïve to sense that there was something between Peter and her mother. I’m not saying that Evie should have been able to guess exactly what was going on, but there were times when I couldn’t believe that she didn’t sense any underlying currents. I guessed what was going to happen the first time Peter and Evie’s mother met, and I didn’t go out with them every day, day after day. It made me think not that Evie was young and naïve, but that she was as dense and perceptive as a brick.

So not only is Evie completely blind to the situation between her mother and Peter, she is also completely oblivious to the nature of the relationship between Peter and her stepfather. Evie knows that Joe doesn’t like Peter, but even though Peter drops some pretty heavy hints, she never even guesses at the nature of the conflict between the two. This bewildered me. As a teenager I was constantly making up stories. Maybe I’m alone here, but I think of teenagers as being ace at jumping to conclusions. But maybe Evie is the exception to the rule.

I also never felt like I was really immersed in the post-War period. Blundell definitely dropped hints and made chronologically relevant allusions to 1947, but I was never quite able to suspend my disbelief. It just felt like modern day to me, despite Evie’s reflections on Victory Gardens and rationing.

I also want to write about it Peter. I didn’t like him and, frankly, I couldn’t see why Evie did. Sure, he was “movie-star handsome”, but he was also a liar and a thief. Not to mention he was sleeping with her mother. Granted, Evie didn’t know any of this, but that’s partly my point. Evie never questions anything Peter says, even when he slips up. The author’s hints that Peter isn’t who he says he is are blatant enough for the readers to suspect him almost in the beginning. I remember being a teenager, and I remember being gullible, but Evie is more than gullible; she’s slow on the uptake. I also failed to understand her repeated insistence that Peter “was a good man”, even when all was finally revealed about him.

This review is getting pretty long, so I’m going to try to wrap this up. I can’t finish this review without touching on the main thrust of the novel—the lies that Evie tells. I can understand why she told them. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have lied if it meant saving my own parents, no matter what they did. But there was something off about Evie’s decision. The fact is that Evie’s lies drastically changed her relationship with her parents in a significant way. In the beginning of the novel, Evie is controlled by her mother and by Joe. At the end, due to the lies that she tells, she ends the novel as the person who now has the power. Evie seems to revel in this, which, in my opinion, puts a distasteful spin on her actions and makes them not as noble as they appear to be.

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