Review: Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

My family is fond of proposing slightly morbid hypotheticals over dinner. Well, Mumsy and Indie and Social Sisters and Captain Hammer and I are fond of this, and Legal Sister is sometimes fond of it and sometimes acts like she thinks we’re nuts and needs to be talked into participating. Daddy usually gazes at us like we are crazy. We like to discuss which sister would get chosen in a Sophie’s Choice situation (it would definitely be Legal Sister, because Social and Indie Sisters are frail flowers, and I am just not that brave). Or who we would pick to give our eulogy. Or if we had to marry a Disney villain what Disney villain would we marry. Or if we became spies in the war what would be our most useful spy skills, and what would be our spy downfall.

Code Name Verity destroyed me because the eponymous character’s downfall would be my exact downfall: She looks the wrong way crossing the street in occupied France, and gets taken up by the Gestapo. The first half of the book is her confession, produced and written down because she cannot abide being tortured anymore and will tell them anything to make them stop. She recounts the story of her best friend, Maddie, the pilot of the plane that took Verity to France in the first place, and how their friendship developed and led her eventually to where the Gestapo caught her.

It will come as no surprise when I report that this book is dark dark dark. Even darker than I was imagining. Verity writes in a flippant way — she cannot stop herself from making fun of the people who have imprisoned her, even when she knows she will be punished for it — but beneath her tone are a lot of very, very bad things. She’s a person trying to hang on to her personhood, and that makes her engaging even when she tells the reader directly that she’s betraying everyone and everything — all the British wireless codes she has, all the types of planes and names of airbases — that she believes in.

I don’t think this book is quite as spoilable as some reviews have made it out to be, but since I admittedly am no authority on what “spoils” a book, I will do my best not to give anything away. I don’t think it’s one of those books where knowing even a teeny bit of information will just ruin you. You can figure some of the stuff out! You are a smart, discerning reader! It’s not Fingersmith, is what I’m saying. There are unexpected events but they aren’t Fingersmith unexpected. They are (nearly always) what happens in war.

Verity is a wonderful narrator, and the story of her friendship with Maddie is just lovely. Her insistence on being identified correctly as Scottish, not English, made me smile (usually sadly because this book is sad). I loved reading about the work women did in World War II, how dangerous it was and how satisfying. In particular, I loved it that the point of this book is a friendship between two women. It passed the hell out of the Bechdel test. When Verity is talking about what a good team she and Maddie make — and you can see them being a good team, and loving the hell out of their own competence and closeness — it’s just marvelous and touching and amazing.

Hopefully by the time this posts Mumsy will have read Code Name Verity also (cause it was one of her Christmas presents and I read it first), and hopefully she will have liked it. It’s fine if not though, Mumsy! I know it is a very dark book and sometimes that is not what the people want.

Other reviews are legion.

A question about the Bechdel Test

So the Bechdel Test – invented by Alison Bechdel – critiques the dearth of primary female characters with any degree of interiority in teh moviez, and it consists of three criteria:

The show/book/film whatever

1) has two female characters who
2) have a conversation about
3) something other than a man.

Fewer films/shows than you’d think pass this test, including many that I love. Like, Firefly? Almost none (if any?) of the episodes pass the test. Kaylee and Inara are friends, but they almost always are talking about Simon or Inara’s clients. Zoe is terse and spends all her time with Mal and Wash, and River is crazy and spends all her time with Simon.

The cartoon that invented the Bechdel Test says that Alien passes the test because two women talk to each other about an alien. In this example, the alien is a problem the women are trying to solve (I assume? I’ve never seen it). So that made me wonder, can something pass the Bechdel Test if two women are talking about a man, but in a capacity wholly unrelated to any sort of romance-type situation? Like what if Leslie from Parks and Recreation runs for City Council, and her opponent is a dude, and she and Ann Perkins get together to talk about campaign strategy to defeat the opponent? If that was the only conversation she and Ann had in that episode, would it mean that that episode didn’t pass the Bechdel Test? Cause I feel like that example still lives up to the spirit of the Bechdel Test. The opponent in this example functions like the alien in Alien: an obstacle to the (non-romantic) aspirations of the two characters.

Thoughts? And if you think that this imaginary episode of Parks and Rec would qualify, do you think it would still qualify if the opponent in question were someone who used to date Ann?