Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: If the Witness Lied by Caroline B. Cooney

Caroline B. Cooney has been writing YA suspense books for ages. Books like The Face on the Milk Carton helped define the genre in its early years and many of her books are (probably rightfully) considered classics. I know in middle school I absolutely devoured the Janie quartet (which starts with The Face on the Milk Carton) - I absolutely couldn't get enough of that poor girl's story.

So picking up Cooney's latest book, If the Witness Lied was in a way like visiting an old friend. The narrative just immediately felt like it was one of her books, even though it's been years since I've read any of them. The characters are all rather upstanding but have some crucial flaw/secret/weight on their shoulders, danger pops up immediately within the first few pages of the book, and its a tightly plotted suspense novel that I read through quickly (started it this morning on the train, read a bit during lunch and then again on the train home, and finished the last quarter of the book in about half an hour at home).

The story follows the four Fountain children - Madison, Jack, "Smithy" and Tris - who within the last three years have witnessed both their mother's and their father's deaths. Their mother died from cancer shortly after giving birth to Tris - she refused chemotherapy during her pregnancy to bring him into the world. A year before the start of the novel, their father died as well - apparently in an accident caused by Tris, earning the family a lengthy stay in the media spotlight thanks to the gristly story of a toddler who caused the deaths of two parents.

In the year since their father's death, the children have split up: Madison lives with her god parents, Smithy ran away to boarding school, while Jack nobly stuck it out and lived at home with Tris and Aunt Cheryl, their mother's stepsister who ingratiated herself into their lives shortly after their mother's death. Aunt Cheryl clearly feels no great love for the children - more than once she's suggested Tris or Jack belong in foster care and has never tried to get Madison or Smithy to move back home. Instead she is obsessed with "fixing up" the house - she's one of those women who watches nothing but home redecorating shows on TV all day. Aunt Cheryl is the witness referred to in the title, as she was the only one to witness the accident that killed the kids' father, thus it was she who placed the blame on Tris.

The day after what would have been their father's birthday, Aunt Cheryl reveals that she has arranged for a reality TV crew to document the family. Jack sees this as "selling" Tristan to TV - again. Coincidentally, the two sisters also feel a pull to come home, uniting the Fountains against the intruding enemy of Aunt Cheryl and Reality TV.

As much as Cooney was a pioneer of YA lit, in some ways this book really felt like it belonged to another era of YA literature. I kept comparing the four siblings to The Boxcar Children - the littlest brother is charming and winning, the oldest brother is the solid, responsible one and the two sisters are pretty much incompetent. Sure they can whip up toast in an effort to feel useful and keep everyone's spirits up, but when it comes to planning and action, they leave it all to Jack (even though he's two years younger than the oldest sister). Perhaps the sisters wouldn't have irked me so much if all the other women in the novel weren't also incompetent and/or evil: we're told right away that Aunt Cheryl is a beastly aunt who apparently wants to remove every little memento of the children's dead parents (she was only a step-sister to their mom, and came into the family when the mom was already an adult), and the neighbor girl is also reliant upon Jack for making plans (and is the only pseudo-motherly influence little Tris has ever known).

All of the adults are largely absent throughout the novel, and when they do appear they are ineffective cardboard cutouts. There's also a bit of preachiness - literally in the form of reflections on religion and appeals to God, and figuratively in the constant diatribes against TV in general. I'm not sure Cooney fully did her research on how reality shows are filmed, either: we meet the associate produce and editor of the show, and they're followed around by a van with a TV antennae on top. In my senior year of college my speech team was followed around by a documentary crew, and I promise there were no creepy white vans with antennae stalking us through tournaments.

This is a quick and relatively engrossing read - if you're already a fan of Cooney's there isn't anything here to put you off. However it probably won't warrant a re-read, nor do I think it's going to stand up as one of her more endearing titles.
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