The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty
I decided to take a break from fairy tales and fantasies by having a contemporary young adult read this time. My sister and I were discussing about how back in the days we used to write to pen pals from other countries. We were talking about how exciting it was to write and receive these letters. We attach/receive stickers, pictures, postcards and other items small enough to fit on an envelope. None of my pen pals lasted but my sister got lucky. She started corresponding with her pen friend back in high school and now the latter has kids and all but still the two continues to keep in touch. I find it really sweet and I am envious. Anyhow, because of that I decided to choose Secret Assignments from my TBR as my next read because the book is about just that, pen pals and letter writing.
Summary from Goodreads:
Told entirely through letters, diary entries, emails, and other writing, Moriarty's novel introduces us to Emily, Lydia, and Cassie -- all students at Ashbury High -- who begin writing to their Brookfield High counterparts through the schools' organized pen pal project. Readers learn quickly that each girl has her own writing style and that at two of the Brookfield boys (Seb and Charlie) seem to be smitten with Lydia and Emily. The only trouble is Cassie's pen pal, Matthew, a shady character who first sends her short, threatening letters and then becomes strangely sweet toward her. Nobody can figure out why Cassie keeps writing to him, but after she has a crushing meet-up with Matthew, Cassie discovers -- with the help of her friends and the Brookfield guys -- that he hasn't been honest about his identity. All could be ended there, but when Charlie helps take revenge and Brookfield High gets mysteriously vandalized, the group comes together to deliver justice and save the endangered pen pal project.
When I acquired this book I thought I may have made a wrong choice. I tend to be quite judgmental of books based on their covers. I thought that this one is kind of too frilly and too girly for me. But I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I like that the story is conveyed through letters, e-mails, notes, and journal entries. It sort of makes me feel like I'm in on their secrets. I like the humor and the witty banter going on between the girls and the guys' letters, and even their parents and teachers were not excluded in making funny notes/posts. I thought it would be quite hard to convey the personalities of the three girls and guys because of the novel being epistolary. But I was wrong. I had a concrete mental picture of these characters with really quirky personalities. I was bracing myself for some sort of smothering, cheesy romance (see how judgmental I am?) but I was pleasantly surprised yet again because although there was romance it was not at all "smothering". It was sweet, subtle and really funny.
Lydia and Sebastian's correspondence is the most outrageous of all because they give each other challenges/dares and Lydia's imagination is really wild. Emily and Charlie's is a bit tamer but not any less witty and entertaining. As to Cassie and Matthew's I'm going to leave to you to discover. Although the meat of the book is mostly the letters between Em and Charlie and Lydia and Seb, Cassie still stood out for me. In fact, I was a bit drawn to her than the rest of the characters. Maybe because she seems the most real to me, a young girl struggling with grief and overcoming her fears. More than just a fun novel, this book touches on family, friendship, identity, and inner battles with our minds and emotions.
I will definitely scout for other Jaclyn Moriarty books and other epistolary novels as well. Do let me know if you have recommendations.