Liar & Spy
Written by Rebecca Stead
Yearling, 2012, 180 pp.
Mom says our Seurat poster reminds her to look at the big picture. Like when it hurts to think about selling the house, she tells herself how that bad feeling is just one dot in the giant Seurat painting of our lives. (p. 11)
Thematically, Liar & Spy is a big Seurat painting–a pointalistic text in which the reader sees what appears to be solid lines and color and is slowly led closer and closer to the canvas to discover that the dots are creating an illusion. A tension is created between what things appear to be and what things, in fact, are.
Rebecca Stead is the first American to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (UK). This award was opened to American authors in 2012. Other books that made the short list were The Fault in Our Stars (John Green, 2012), The Boy who Swam with Piranhas (David Almond, 2013), and Maggot Moon (Sally Gardner, 2013). Stead’s second novel, When You Reach Me, won the 2010 Newbery Award. She grew up in New York City and is now raising her children there.
It is hard to summarize the plot of this novel without giving away the individual dots that readers are gradually shown. The “big picture” is the protagonist, Georges (named after Seurat), a lonely, bullied child who moves to an apartment after his father loses his job. His mother is an ICU nurse and is at the hospital for the entire novel. At the new building Georges meets a bohemian, home-schooled boy called Safer, who pushes Georges to spy on a neighbor. Georges and Safer spend most of the novel lying to each other, to themselves, and to readers.
As an “American” novel that is being marketed and read in the UK, Liar & Spy shows a very specific United States. The characters inhabiting this text are all middle/upper middle class, white, urbane Americans who live in a Brooklyn, the good part. The kind of people who eat out a lot, have cars, rent large apartments, and care about antiques–privileged people with money. Liar & Spy’s America, its setting and privilege, is certainly not representative of the majority of the U.S. Thematically it is very American in that it pits Georges’ mother’s sunny optimism against his father’s pragmatism. Americans believe in a national credo that hard work and a good attitude makes anything possible, while at the same time, we deal in our day-to-day lives with glaring evidence that it is a myth, dots on a paper that together look magnificent.
This novel could be paired with another mysterious story set in upper class New York City, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Kongisburg (1967). It could also be a part of a thematic set about living in Brooklyn that could include Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson (2003), a novel written from a contemporary African American perspective that takes place in a different Brooklyn, as well as Brooklyn Bridge by Karen Hesse (2008), a historical fiction piece about growing up in early 1900s Jewish Brooklyn.
Melissa B. Wilson, Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond, LA
WOW Review, Volume VI, Issue 2 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/vi-2/