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.
The Year of Secret Assignments by Jacklyn Moriarty is chock-full of hilarious jokes, great characters, and a unique story. It's 340 pages long, and I laughed on pretty much every single one of them--which means this book is nothing short of amazing. Although I do read my fair share of humorous books, it's a rare moment when I actually do crack up out loud--for the majority of the time, it's more of a unheard chuckle that rings on the inside. So I'm pretty endeared with this book after reading it--I've never laughed so much from reading, ever.
The novel centers on three girls named Cassie, Lydia, and Emily, who have been best friends for years, and also happen to be in the same 10th grade English class. When their English teacher starts up a pen pal program between their school, Ashbury, and neighboring Brookfield High School, it's to some reluctance. After all, Ashbury students and Brookfield students don't get along; Ashbury's a private school for rich kids, while Brookfield is home to drug dealers and criminals.
But it's through this pen pal program that the girls are paired up with with three boys: Matthew, Sebastian, and Charlie. And although that's six main characters to keep track of, all of them are strong, distinct, and quirky. Even though it's been a few weeks since I've read the book*, I can recall every bit of a each character. So now I'm thinking of Emily's love of chocolate and horses and her tendency to misuse words; cute Charlie's supersonic memory and knack with cars; bad-tempered Seb's talent with drawing and soccer; Matthew's all encompassing hate; bizarre Lydia, who dreams of becoming a writer but can't finish a book; and Cassie, who's struggling through her grief from her father's death last year. It's not often that I love characters so much that I want to dive into their world and be their friends. And I'd certainly love to meet the real-life characters from The Year of Secret Assignments.
The novel is structured in a fascinating way**; and flipping from one page to the next, I wasn't ever sure what I'd find next. The bulk of it consists of letters from the pen pal program, but the writing is also interspersed with diary and journal entries, pages from Lydia's how-to-writing-guide Notebook (TM), emails, flyers, and announcements. But what I really liked was the nonlinear form--so unconventional, but executed so fabulously. The story doesn't unfold in a normal manner; instead, it's separated by terms (fall, winter, etc.) that divide up the letter exchange for the two main characters that are paired up (i.e. Seb and Lydia). The story picks up and leaves off at different intervals, but at all the same, it's fairly easy to follow.
The humor was definitely my absolute favorite part of this book. Some examples:
“I always think it’s funny when a teacher tries to be cool. I want to sit them down and say ‘It’s okay, you’re a grown-up, you’re allowed to be a nerd,’ and they will look up at me confused but also relieved and teary-eyed.”
"I will now conclude by saying that your mother has just tripped halfway down the stairs because she was wearing a single high-heeled shoe. It is a lesson in the danger of doing things by halves."
(Emilly with her malotropisms:)
""Also, I have seen on TV that you can get head transplants and it seems to me that it is a tragedy if you are bald and you don't get a head transplant."
It's hard to find quotes, because a lot of the humor is embedded throughout a scene--but this book truly is hilarious.
But as funny as this book is, it does have more serious undertones; in particular with Cassie, who pretty much broke my heart with her stubbornness and the way she was dealing with her deceased father. And the friendship between the three girls is just wonderful to behold; poignant, sweet, and even if it's a little-to-perfect, realistic. Above all, The Year of Secret Assignments has some pretty strong themes of love and friendship and loss, and the whole book is told in such an enjoyable way that it definitely ranks among my top reads in the past few months.
All in all, The Year of Secret Assignments is a lighthearted, fun read, and if you want to have a rollicking good time for a few hours of your day, or you just want a book to cheer you up, don't look any further. Make sure you have some time on your hands though-if you're like me, you won't be able to put this one down until you're finished.
I give it a 9.25-9.5***/10. One of the most entertaining books I've ever read, and like I said--I laughed continuously throughout the novel. Which earns a bunch of points and a you-must-read-it rec from me.
*okay, so I'm such a book-reviewing slacker. Lol.
**:::spazzes::: Am I the only one who loves it when I read books structured differently?
***Pathetic, I know. Hehe--I would put 9.4 but...eh.