The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Ashbury-Brookfield pen pal program is designed to bring together the two rival schools in a spirit of harmony and “the Joy of the Envelope.” But when Cassie, Lydia, and Emily send their first letters to Matthew, Charlie, and Sebastian, things don’t go quite as planned. What starts out as a simple letter exchange soon leads to secret missions, false alarms, lock picking, mistaken identities, and an all-out war between the schools–not to mention some really excellent kissing.

While reading this book, I developed a closer attachment than I originally thought I would. I might have said this before, but I’m not much of a contemporary YA reader-person – I have a tendency to be easily bored by reading about what I see as the normalness of every-day life and experiences. I already live in the world I’m reading about. Why should I read about someone living in the same exact world as I am, especially if the protagonist and I happen to live in similar circumstances – student, American, white, etc. (Although in this case, replace American for Australian, what with the story taking place in Australia.)

Even with this book there were things that made me roll my eyes more than a little. Emily, Cassie, and Lydia are three incredibly privileged girls who come from wealthy, lawyer families and attend an upper-crust private school, whereas their penpals are boys attending a public school with a reputation for crime and deviancy, and at least two of those penpals are decidedly less well-off than the girls are. Considering the connections forged between the two sides in the letters, I am a little surprised that class or school differences weren’t bigger issues they had to work through.

There were also the bits that made the story look just too convenient – like the fact that the three girls all happened to end up with three boys and that by the end, two of the pairs are in romantic relationships. And then there’s the fact that with one major exception, the letter-writing goes well and there’s actual communication and rapport that develops between Emily, Charlie, Lydia, and Seb. Maybe I’m just cynical about my high school days and what people were like back then (me among them), but it felt a bit forced that simply by luck and happenstance that four high school strangers would grow to be that into communicating in depth to each other, through letters no less. That’s just me, though.

With all that out of the way, I can start with how I really liked Emily, Lydia, and Cassie’s unique writing styles, ways of describing the world they live in, and communication skills. Emily started out as the more annoying, bubbly one who’s incredibly full of herself, but when it comes to her two best friends, she’s the sweetest person on earth and becomes like a mother hen when one of them is hurt. I preferred Lydia more than the other two from the get-go – once I read her snarky responses to her Notebook™ that’s supposed to help her become a better writer, I knew she was speaking my language. She’s the more negative and closed-off of the three and likes playing games more than being open and honest. She does care about people and if Emily’s the mother hen when someone she loves gets hurt, Lydia’s the mama bear, ready to rip the culprit to shreds. Cassie’s been dealing with her father’s death and she’s not sure of the person she seems to have become in the process, and so uses the penpal project and telling all about herself to a complete stranger as a means of therapy and exploration. Unfortunately for her, this backfires on her spectacularly. Cassie plays less of an active role over the course of the book, but overall it’s about her and how her friends care about and look after her well-being. The final showdown of the story, while not directly about Cassie, brings about closure for her and what gives her the courage to begin to grow as a person.

Charlie and Seb, Emily and Lydia’s penpals were interesting enough people, but I never felt like we got as much insight into them as the girls, largely because we only have their letters and we get other forms of documents for the girls in addition to their letters. Also, like I said earlier, I was irritated that both of them fell so spectacularly in love with their penpals so easily and then spent a lot of time flirting with Emily and Lydia, especially Seb. The girls do fall in love with them as well, but I was still annoyed at how much romance had play a part in these guys’ relationship with them.

The book was written in epistolary fashion and it worked very well. The story largely takes place in the penpal letters each of the characters send each other, as well as a couple of school notices, Lydia’s Notebook™, and Cassie’s diary. The pacing of the three pairs of letters helped maintain an overall narrative and tension as to what individual outcomes would be over the course of the book. Also, the book itself is divided into a few different sections, the results of which nicely mirror across communication streams.

I took a gamble on this book and I am definitely glad it paid off. Although I definitely had some issues, I truly enjoyed getting inside the heads of Lydia, Cassie, and Emily and I was glad that each of them ended up in a good place at the book’s conclusion. After doing some research online, it looks as though Jaclyn Moriarty has written a couple of other stand-alone books set in the same two schools, also written as epistolary novels. It may take a while, but it’s likely I’ll get around to reading the rest of them at some point.

Disclosure – library