Judy Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied (2008)

I was in a mood for a good noir mystery and this one, judging by the cover, was as noir as you can get. And what happens in between the covers did exactly meet my expectations.

The teenage girl you see on the picture seems a bit naive, a bit unsure of herself, a bit clumsy, not out of childhood yet but suddenly grown into a young woman. You can guess that the lipstick she’s using is probably stolen from her mother’s purse, and that this is a small act of defiance that will soon put a world between mother and daughter, as the mother will discover a rival who will outshine her and start her own love life.

There’s all that in Blundell’s coming-of-age novel, and a lot more. The story starts in post-war New York, where Evie, 15, lives with her beautiful mother and her step-father Joe, who grew into a successful small business-owner upon returning from the war in Europe. Evie’s mother wants her to be a nice, naive, obedient little girl, but as a blonde sexy working woman raising a girl on her own before marrying Joe, she had more than her share of petty criticism and dirty innuendos from the neighborhood gossips and her new mother-in-law to fit the conventional 1950s housewife ideals.

Blundell is very good at recreating the era (fashion, slang, expectations), and at showing that while everyone in this novel tries hard to fit the new American ideals, the ground is shaky and dirty secrets from the past always threaten this perilous balance.

Soon enough the novel is transported to a nearly empty hotel in out-of-season Palm Beach (without air-conditioning), as Joe takes his whole family to improvised holidays. Or isn’t there more to it? There’s a lot of foreboding in this novel, and as the atmosphere grows hot, damp and oppressive, you know that tragedy will strike. The couple’s marriage is unravelling, Evie falls for a mysterious, charming hotel guest, Peter, who happens to know her stepfather from his previous days in the military, and who doesn’t seem insensitive to her mother’s beauty.

Then Blundell throws into this explosive mix an unexpected ingredient: Antisemitism. It was an interesting twist (because Antisemitism flourished during the Cold war, even right after the Holocaust), but I found it unnecessary and it wore the plot down. Blundell could very well have done without it.

I enjoyed this complex loss-of-innocence tale, where no one is entirely black and white, but I can’t say I was thrilled. There are some lengthy bits in the middle and the ending is a bit too virtuous for my taste: Evie evolves a bit too quickly from a naive little girl to a wise, conscious young woman. In traditional noir novels, the good guys fight for the good cause while being a bit cynical and desperate (realistic?) about their chance of  success: I guess this convention would have been too dark and bitter for a coming-of-age novel for teenagers.

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