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Not Just for Kids: 'Strings Attached' by Judy Blundell

A young actress learns the hard way the meaning of 'strings attached' in this tale of mobsters and murder that unfolds in the Northeast during the Korean War.

February 20, 2011|By Susan Carpenter | Los Angeles Times
  • Illustration to go with the review of the book "Strings Attached" by Judy Blundel.
Illustration to go with the review of the book "Strings Attached"… (Lauren Simkin Berke / For…)

Strings Attached

A Novel

Judy Blundell

Scholastic Press: 320 pp., $17.99

It's a truism that opposites attract. Whether it's the generous and the needy, the virtuous and corrupt, it's typically equal and opposite forces that coalesce and force change.

It's the underbelly of this perennial truth that shapes the young adult mystery "Strings Attached," where the opposites in question are a mobster and a showgirl. Aging men who chase beautiful young women don't always net their catch, regardless of their bank accounts or social standing. And the bold women who simultaneously take advantage of such men, while also denying them, make good copy.

The follow-up to author Judy Blundell's 2008 National Book Award winner, "What I Saw and How I Lied," "Strings Attached" is an equally evocative work of midcentury modern storytelling. An elegantly written and meticulously plotted murder mystery that unfolds in the Northeast during the Korean War, "Strings" is an appealingly retro take on a coming-of-age story that is refreshingly novel in the modern YA genre, even if it does share similar character and subplot details with its predecessor: a war that weighs heavily on the culture, dividing a beautiful woman from a jealous man, and a death that reveals a covert affair, unraveling a tangled web of family secrets.

Told from the perspective of 17-year-old Kit Corrigan, the book opens in New York City. The year is 1950. Kit has just finished working her first big-city job in a second-rate Broadway play and is desperate to find a new stage production and living quarters. The raven-haired actress has just fled her hometown of Providence, R.I., after breaking up with her boyfriend and getting into a fight with her dad.

Too proud to return home or to ask for money, Kit is thankful when her ex-boyfriend's father not only hooks her up with an audition at New York's hottest nightclub but also pays the rent on a new apartment. She recognizes there may be strings attached to such a generous offer, but she nevertheless accepts.

Had she understood what those strings would turn out to be, she might not have. But she did, and "Strings Attached" plays that choice to great effect, tracking Kit's awakening to the realization that she is a pawn.

The book volleys for the most part between New York City and Providence, with much of the action taking place in 1949, when Kit decided to leave home, and 1950, when she became entangled with the Mafia while working as a scantily clad dancer at a club frequented by mobsters.

Once Kit's New York City lifestyle has been firmly established, the book delves more deeply into her past, providing clues about her upbringing as one of three triplets raised during the Depression by a single father and how her impoverished youth has shaped her young-adult decision-making. At one point, Kit laments, "Life gives you plenty of chances to be stupid, and I'd taken every single one of them."

Blundell has a clear affection for the era, effortlessly weaving in period details that help readers visualize the characters and experience a time when women didn't leave home without first applying lipstick and adjusting the seams on their stockings — and when challenging men was taboo. Those details are enhanced with era-appropriate dialogue and descriptions, as well as occasional, colorfully written newspaper clippings about gangland slayings that seem ripped from vintage pulp fiction.

Blundell is a master of the literary slow build, and her emotive yet sober style is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's in "The Great Gatsby." Readers are privy to Kit's fear as she reads about reputed hit man Frankie "No Bones" Maretti being led away in cuffs after the murder of a man Kit had been asked to keep tabs on the previous night. They're involved as she pieces together the details that help explain what's happening around her and devises a saner path forward.

"Strings Attached" may take place in a time long before its intended readers were born, but Kit's predicament is compelling and her choices relevant and easily transposed to the modern day.

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