Liar & Spy
It's no secret that Rebecca Stead's WHEN YOU REACH ME is one of my favorite books of the last five years, or possibly of all time. I've been eagerly awaiting LIAR & SPY, her new novel, and it turns out the wait was worth every agonizing minute. Although her latest may not possess the same complexity as its predecessor, it does share with her Newbery-winning favorite a sense of whimsy and playfulness, as well as a focus on relationships, both in families and between friends.
LIAR & SPY is a product of its time. Georges (named after the post-Impressionist artist Seurat) is sad about having to move from his family's beloved house in Brooklyn to a much smaller apartment nearby, after his architect father loses his job. He's staying in the same school district, but that's kind of a mixed blessing when some of the kids at school call him "Gorgeous" as a joke and, when they're not finding themselves merely clever, are outright mean to him. Georges' mom, a nurse, is never home; he knows that she needs to work double shifts at the hospital to earn extra money, but that doesn't make her absence any easier.
"Stead's great gifts lie not only in storytelling but in offering whimsical, even quirky vignettes or characters that feel like places or people readers would like to get to know.... At its heart, LIAR & SPY is a beautifully composed character study about a boy poised between becoming a leader or a follower --- or maybe a little bit of both."
When Georges moves into the new apartment building, he is almost immediately drawn into the orbit of Safer, a charismatic home-schooled kid who starts up a Spy Club that Georges, thanks to his busybody day, winds up joining. Safer, it turns out, is obsessed with so-called Mr. X, a man who dresses all in black and is often seen carrying suitcases out of his apartment --- suitcases that Safer is convinced are used for some nefarious purpose.
As Georges finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into Safer's world, he is on some level comforted. It's nice to hang out with another kid his age who seems to enjoy his company and who will certainly never make fun of him for his name. Safer's younger sister, Candy, although sometimes annoying, also provides a useful distraction for Georges with her exuberance and her near-ceaseless demands for (that's right) candy. But as surveillance of Mr. X grows more and more serious, Georges starts to question Safer's motives as well as his methods. Questioning Safer also raises questions about Georges' own situation as well. Who is lying to whom is a question at the heart of LIAR & SPY, and one that readers will be asking themselves just as Georges does.
Stead's great gifts lie not only in storytelling but in offering whimsical, even quirky vignettes or characters that feel like places or people readers would like to get to know. The ridiculous not-fortunes Georges and his dad receive at Yum Li's restaurant are a good example; Candy's obsession with her namesake confection is another: "Mr. Orange. That's who I'm going to marry,'" she declares. "I hate orange. The color and the flavor. It's the only flavor I don't like, actually. That's the whole point. I hate it, he loves it. That way we can always share the pack…. Starbursts. Lifesavers. Jolly Ranchers. Whatever." Even the messages Georges and his mother leave each other each night, formed out of Scrabble tiles, become a central, bittersweet component of the world Stead has built.
Astute readers will likely figure out at least one of the several mysteries Stead lays out for them, but that's not really the point here. At its heart, LIAR & SPY is a beautifully composed character study about a boy poised between becoming a leader or a follower --- or maybe a little bit of both.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 25, 2012