I’ve already posted about Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein but I just can’t stop thinking about it. I just sit and say, “Damn.” A close friend and sometimes-poster on YABookBridges (@katsprad) was lucky enough to receive a galley of the book. I happened on to it by accident in the library. I had heard a few people mentioning it on Twitter so I decided to see what all the hype was about. Because we live in different states now, it’s difficult for K & I to actually get to speak about books, which is one of the pillars of our friendship. In this case, we were lucky to have already scheduled a visit around the time we finished this book. K finished reading it before I did and she warned me that she was wrecked. I figured if I had made it through The Fault in Our Stars that I was good. How could it be any better (or worse, depending on your perspective) than TFIOS? What follows is a modified transcript of our conversation about Code Name Verity via emails, texts, tweets, and one-to-one conversation.
K: I did warn you [about the book’s impact], and at the same time I told you that YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK. Any book that leaves such a mark on the heart is not to be missed.
Me: This is the best book I’ve read this year. I would wager it’s the best book I’ve read in the last five years. You know this is saying something since I’m a diehard Nerdfighter and TFIOS came out this year. I can’t stop thinking about this book and peeling back the layers Wein has so carefully folded into this novel.
When K & I started talking about this book, we were talking over one another, rushing to have this point made or that observation heard.
K: I’m pretty sure the people near us at the bar thought we were arguing—or crazy. We always have much to say about books we both enjoy, but CNV is special, and our conversation about it has been much richer. We’re STILL talking about it!
ME: The soul of this story is the characters.
One thing K & I both noticed was that while Queenie is the narrator, readers actually get Maddie’s story first.
K: At the beginning, I was a little frustrated with the unclear narrator because I worried that the author was being coy—often these devices/ploys end up being strictly for effect and the plot and/or characters aren’t worth the reader’s effort or patience. In this case, it was all worth the wait and the mystery added a layer of tension and commitment (reader to characters). I was even more watchful and engaged than I usually am at the beginning of a novel because I was trying to solve the problem of the characters’ identities and relationships.
Me: I agree; I worried it could put readers off but Wein makes it work because Queenie’s voice from the first sentence is compelling and engaging. She is defiant and completely self-possessed. She knows what’s being done to her, what she’s doing, and she never flinches from it.
K: Absolutely matter of fact and honest. While the narration is unconventional, we trust Queenie. So readers get Maddie’s nice base of dependability told with Queenie’s panache. Queenie is the flash and Maddie is the steady burn.
K & I both identified strongly with one character and we agreed that every one who reads this story, man or woman, will have the same experience.
ME: Queenie and Maddie’s characteristics are universal and the qualities one looks for in a loyal friend. That’s what they are at the core: loyal, knows-your-greatest-fears, will-raise-your-kids-if-you-die kind of friends. Queenie is inventive, fearless, relies on bravado more than skill, and just has pure guts. Maddie is skilled, logical, honest, and dogged.
K: Their friendship is unusual; a seemingly odd couple, but balanced like yin & yang– dark and light, common and noble, steady and whimsical. But under the gloss of Queenie’s bravado is a sense of devastation at Maddie’s loss. The pain and regret she clearly feels about Maddie, especially in the face of the pain we’d expect her to feel about her present situation, but that SHE clearly doesn’t, makes us want to know all about Maddie herself—anyone who means that much to such a vibrant and indomitable person is someone we want to know.
ME: Both are SO STRONG and they are almost invincible together. One can see this immediately when they’re bringing in the lost German pilot. Maddie knows exactly what to do and Queenie has the moxy to pull it off. Neither of them would have been able to do it alone but it was sheer perfection with them working together.
K: Maddie knew exactly what to have the pilot do, and Queenie knew how to say it, both in terms of language and in terms of delivery. If Maddie had been working alone, she might’ve barked instructions and terrified the already dazed pilot even more. Queenie would’ve known how to soothe the poor fellow, but she’d have had him crashing his plane. This is how the two girls discover that they’re almost made for each other, each balancing and enhancing the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Of course, they have to get over the fact that they don’t particularly like each other in order to become friends.
As the story progressed, we both began to wonder what drives these two women.
ME: They have a common goal: to effect change-to make a mark on the world so that each, in her own way, will not be forgotten.
K: What’s fascinating about Maddie and Queenie is how they each enact their shared reason for BEING so differently. If both girls believe the same thing—that the primary point of their lives is to do what’s in their power to make the world a better place—how is it possible that they do things so differently? I think there are superficial variations, like the dissimilar situations each girl gets into and each girl’s range of skills and options. I wonder if these external elements created the disparity in the girls’ actions?
Ultimately, though, we decided that it’s all about the girls’ internal value systems.
ME: Maddie has an unerring moral compass and she chooses to do the right thing regardless of the consequences for herself or anyone else. She doesn’t even consider structure or rules (RAF) when doing the right thing-she does right because it’s right. Queenie is going to make her mark on the world, right and wrong be damned. She works within the structure given her, whether rules or no, to just to play the game. She is invested in the game, not the good or bad outcome. This is what makes her such a good spy. When Queenie is taken to the interrogation room with the other operative and a gun, he breaks her down. It’s immoral to break a person that way, but Queenie goes along because it’s part of the game. Maddie would’ve been outraged.
K: But no matter how different they are from each other in terms of style or focus or skill, both of these women are determined to have an impact and make their lives mean something, and that bonds them even closer.
Wein slowly brings the women’s separate trajectories together when the narrative finally switches to Maddie’s voice.
ME: At first, I was convinced that Queenie was giving Maddie instructions on how to rescue Queenie from the hotel-prison. It became clear,
K: Wait! I don’t want to give spoilers. The book is so powerful and the mystery and suspense are so necessary to that power that I’d hate to diminish it for the readers. Queenie uses her narrative to give Maddie hints about her captors and location on the chance that the resourceful and resolute Maddie would move heaven and earth to rescue her friend. When it became clear, however, that rescue was out of the question, I couldn’t fathom Queenie’s hopes or intentions. Trying to decode Queenie’s plans and expectations ratcheted up the tension as the situations in which Queenie and Maddie find themselves became more and more dire. By the time the friends meet again, the stakes are life or death. I was always sure, when it came down to it, that Maddie would save Queenie-and Maddie does save her-but not in the happy-ending kind of way.
The devastating way Maddie saves Queenie elicited another barrage of questions from K and me.
K: Could you have done it?
ME: For certain people in my life but it most surely would have scarred me forever.
K: Me too, but don’t think I could have gone on. Maddie is able to put herself back together and live. Not just that night but for the rest of her life.
ME: Queenie wouldn’t have been able to do it.
K: Who is braver?
ME: I think a distinction needs to be made between “brave” (short term stoicism in the face of danger) and “courageous” (long term determination to live with calamity).
K: Then Queenie’s brave: she knows what the Germans are doing to her and what the outcome will be and yet she continues with her mission. Maddie is courageous: she stares down the emotional & psychological consequences; the ramifications, both personal and professional, that she will have to endure for the rest of her life.
ME: And Wein creates a friendship of such miraculous beauty that it takes only one phrase for the friends to plan, accept, and forgive the rescue that must, to save both Queenie and Maddie, be undertaken.
ME: I think it appropriate to close discussing bravery.
K: I kept coming back to the bravery of Elizabeth Wein.
ME: It took Maddie-level courage to write this story with its ending.
K: We were given a true ending rather than a happy ending (which we would have accepted whole-heartedly because of our love of the characters and our fairy-tale-trained longing for nice, neat stories).
Ultimately, it is a story of truths. The story of true friendship. The story of true history. The story of true peril. The story of true love: the pure, unconditional kind of love that allows one to be the best version of herself.