The Pearl Thief

I’ve been avoiding this review like the plague. I scrubbed my bathtub this afternoon in an attempt to not write this post, in fact, and I don’t know what my hang up is, really, except that this is not Code Name Verity but it is about Julie and so I have many feelings that have […]

The Pearl ThiefI’ve been avoiding this review like the plague. I scrubbed my bathtub this afternoon in an attempt to not write this post, in fact, and I don’t know what my hang up is, really, except that this is not Code Name Verity but it is about Julie and so I have many feelings that have nothing to do with the book in front of me or with literary excellence and have only to do with the fact that I’m a little in love with a brash, fearless, fictional girl who died too young. So, baggage. On the upside, I’ve read The Pearl Thief twice now, and for me at least, it improves upon acquaintance. I think the first time it was the baggage at work; I wasn’t entirely reading The Pearl Thief so much as I was mining it for Julie. The second time, I read it for exactly what it was — a fascinating set piece, a tidy little mystery, a crafty study of class and race* and gender. And the formation of a young woman who, ok, is someday soon going to be the astounding protagonist of Code Name Verity but who is actually a fantastic character before that, and who can carry a book even for a reader who didn’t know what was coming down the pike.

The Pearl Thief, Elizabeth Wein
Hyperion, May 2017
Reviewed from final copy

Let’s get the question on the table front and center. Will lightning strike twice? Can Wein (and Julie) pull off another Printz nod? It’s always hard not to compare a book to the author’s previous work, and in this case, this lacks the bells and whistles that primed Verity for recognition. But while this is a quieter story it still has plenty of the chops required for Printz recognition, along with one or two relatively mild issues that might sink it — but largely at the splitting hairs level; this is certainly among the year’s best, quibbles notwithstanding.

There are two things that really shine here, and I’m torn between which one is more outstanding — Julie’s self-assured, but still naive voice, or the outstanding sense of place.

Let’s tackle setting first. Strathfearn, the River Tay, the tiny library on the island, the claustrophobic set of rooms in the large house that is no longer theirs; the camp in the field and the meandering paths that link everything; the sense of history and love that permeate it all: I want to go there, and in the meantime, I almost feel like I’ve been there. This is a delicate balancing act; Julie knows these spaces intimately, of course, and is telling a story set in places she knows well, making too much description just the sort of thing to break the willing suspension of disbelief (the usual “who is the narrator talking to and would they really remember everything” that plagues first person narratives applies). Julie is a sharply observant girl, though, and she spends the book looking at things with fresh eyes — first because she’s trying to save up memories and a sense of Strathfearn before it’s gone, and then because she’s trying to solve a mystery. That allows for a level of detail that seems natural, and means that the wealth of small details bring the reader in and bring the setting to life. Plus, Wein clearly knows and loves the Scotland of the book. This is a landscape that has been lived rather than researched (the note at the end explains where the actual places on which Strathfearn and its surrounding landscape is based, and also provides valuable details on the river pearls, a level of information Julie would not have been able to convincingly narrate).

This is also a world about to vanish, and that sense of poignancy permeates the novel. It’s there on the meta level; each section is headed by the date, lest the reader forget we are headed rapidly into WWII. And it’s there in the story, as obviously as possible; Strathfearn is a great estate about to become a school (cue shades of Downton Abbey and the passing of an era). It’s also present in the small details; the McEwens own the willows, but without the field they can’t get to them. Change is coming. Change is happening. Julie is keenly aware of the changing world around her, and of her own changes; she’s growing up, and is both gleeful and terrified. Watching her test her power with Francis Dunbar — including that terrible moment when she realizes she’s miscalculated and is now in danger — makes for some intense reading, and is probably the most strongly evoked coming of age I’ve come across this year.

It all holds together because of Julie’s voice and character. She’s smart and stubborn, incredibly privileged — she wears her privilege so carelessly, but she also tries to use it to be a good person — and both knowing and naive. She’s complex but also pretty straightforward. Most of all, Julie is caught in a maelstrom of emotion, and while she’s as dispassionate as she can be, she’s also exploring some very complicated feelings. There’s the obvious, lust and fascination (for Francis and for Ellen). There’s anger — at the world, for being a place where value is placed on her virginity (the question of whether she was “intact” after the attack) and a place where good people are treated poorly for things they do not control — Mary Kinnaird with her strange appearance; the McEwens for being themselves. There’s the confusion; Julie feels compassion for Mary, but then has to face that even a kind person can be cruel, as she does when she confronts Mary’s strong prejudice against the Travellers. There’s the cool intellect of a smart girl who wants more from the world — and takes it, as Ellen points out — only to be frustrated at the limitations all around her.  Through all of this, Wein explores heavy questions about the human condition: love, prejudice, friendship, greed, generosity. And for the most part, it plays beautifully.

Also, this is a MYSTERY. Which makes sense and is appropriate for a teen protagonist to dig into and is satisfying and neatly resolved.

But I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t point out the flaws. The biggest one is the instalove Julie feels for Ellen. There’s no reason, other than Ellen’s hair and boldness, which is strange, because Julie thinks about her responses to everything. This might be intentional; perhaps we’re meant to see this as more meaningful than, say, Julie’s feelings for Frank Dunbar (which are really just lust and a desire to be an adult). But it comes across as strangely unexplored territory, compounded by how easily Julie kisses Ellen, and then reflects on it in ways that are feminist and in keeping with Julie’s tendency to examine and question, but also maybe a little anachronistic. This faint whiff of anachronism is the other flaw that struck me. The moment when Julie kisses Ellen back, a few points when Julie rails against injustices: these are in keeping with the character, but they feel a little pointed and the delivery doesn’t always seem fully of the period. Minor issues, as I said at the top, but anything that makes it to the table will be scrutinized under a microscope, and these are flaws that the microscope will definitely pick up.

But I’d still nominate it, because when we line all the best books up against each other, this deserves to be in there duking it out, although my gut says it’s not actually going to make it to the final five.

*Race is a construct, right. And the Travellers are a different race in the construct of Scotland in the 30s, much as Jews were a race apart in Germany. And Wein does great work with discussing race here, even if a contemporary reader might not read the Travellers as a different race from Julie et al.

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