The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty combines two of the most romantic things: letters, and Spy. Not A Spy or The Spy. Spy as in sneaky adventures, clandestine missions, and witty repartee. IMO, “Spy” is the ultimate superlative, trumping all other adjectives.
My friends once threw me a spy-themed birthday party and by “themed” I don’t mean decorations, I mean scavenger hunt with clues to solve and gifts like a pair of voice-recording sunglasses. I own Sneaky Uses For Everyday Things, obtained at the Spy Museum. Alias was my favorite TV show (sans mystical Rambaldi weirdness). I’ve been dying all summer for the premiere of Nikita (Pilot: potential is there).
Oh yeah. I’m all over this spy business.
Best friends Emily, Lydia, and Cassie are compelled by their English teacher to take part in the Famous Ashbury-Broofield Pen Pal Project to 1) reduce the hostility between the two rival schools, and 2) I’m quoting English teacher Mr. Botherit here, “make a stand against the tyranny of technology! By sending letters, we say no to e-mails! No to mobile technology and texting!! And yes to the Joy of the Envelope!”
The girls at Ashbury, an exclusive private school, are assigned writing partners at Brookfield, a public high school with a rough reputation (“They do have more tattoos and prison time than we have here.”) Emily gets Charlie, a car expert and occasional thief; Lydia gets Sebastian, an artist; Cassie gets Matthew, who’s either a psychopath or a figment of her imagination. The exchanges start out sarcastically at first. Secret assignments are issued from each side in an attempt to see whether their writing partners are “trustworthy.” When Lydia and Emily find out how Cassie’s pen pal has been treating her, they strike back, enlisting help from Sebastian and Charlie. Lockpicking, identity theft, undercover spying, legal drama and other hijinks ensue until everyone’s engaged in an all-out school war.
The story is delivered in letters, diary entries, bulletins, school memos, and even court transcripts, so there’s several points of view going on. What’s done really well is how distinctive each character’s voice is – their personalities emerge, and I got super invested in their stories – not just their interactions with the boys, but with their families, too. The letters are sharp and funny but believable and real (no Gilmore Girls dialogue, for example. I loved the Gilmore Girls, but really – who talks like that…all the time).
So yes, this novel was highly entertaining, but it was also one that had to grow on me a bit. I venture to say that it evolved from being slightly cheesy (in the fluffiest, most enjoyable way) to solidly charming. But by the end, I was clutching the book, laughing so hard that I couldn’t read fast enough, all the way to the last page when I slammed the book shut and announced to everyone in the room, “YES!” because it made me want to cheer out loud.
Lastly, I have to confess that Lydia and Sebastian stole the show for me. Lydia is an aspiring author, and she is badass. Which makes sense to pair her up with Sebastian, all around hottie who says things like, “You’re making me nervous by being so weird. But your weirdness is what I like about you.” Yeah, I’m a little a lot in love with Seb Mantegna. He’s an artist, and he has a black belt in tae kwon do. Come on. Peeta/Gale who?
Lee likes all things spy, smelling books, and is almost always craving a cheeseburger. She tweets from @lkyim about reading books NOT assigned for class. Also she likes Greek mythology. And dogs.