Review: Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

My family is fond of proposing slightly morbid hypotheticals over dinner. Well, Mumsy and Indie and Social Sisters and Captain Hammer and I are fond of this, and Legal Sister is sometimes fond of it and sometimes acts like she thinks we’re nuts and needs to be talked into participating. Daddy usually gazes at us like we are crazy. We like to discuss which sister would get chosen in a Sophie’s Choice situation (it would definitely be Legal Sister, because Social and Indie Sisters are frail flowers, and I am just not that brave). Or who we would pick to give our eulogy. Or if we had to marry a Disney villain what Disney villain would we marry. Or if we became spies in the war what would be our most useful spy skills, and what would be our spy downfall.

Code Name Verity destroyed me because the eponymous character’s downfall would be my exact downfall: She looks the wrong way crossing the street in occupied France, and gets taken up by the Gestapo. The first half of the book is her confession, produced and written down because she cannot abide being tortured anymore and will tell them anything to make them stop. She recounts the story of her best friend, Maddie, the pilot of the plane that took Verity to France in the first place, and how their friendship developed and led her eventually to where the Gestapo caught her.

It will come as no surprise when I report that this book is dark dark dark. Even darker than I was imagining. Verity writes in a flippant way — she cannot stop herself from making fun of the people who have imprisoned her, even when she knows she will be punished for it — but beneath her tone are a lot of very, very bad things. She’s a person trying to hang on to her personhood, and that makes her engaging even when she tells the reader directly that she’s betraying everyone and everything — all the British wireless codes she has, all the types of planes and names of airbases — that she believes in.

I don’t think this book is quite as spoilable as some reviews have made it out to be, but since I admittedly am no authority on what “spoils” a book, I will do my best not to give anything away. I don’t think it’s one of those books where knowing even a teeny bit of information will just ruin you. You can figure some of the stuff out! You are a smart, discerning reader! It’s not Fingersmith, is what I’m saying. There are unexpected events but they aren’t Fingersmith unexpected. They are (nearly always) what happens in war.

Verity is a wonderful narrator, and the story of her friendship with Maddie is just lovely. Her insistence on being identified correctly as Scottish, not English, made me smile (usually sadly because this book is sad). I loved reading about the work women did in World War II, how dangerous it was and how satisfying. In particular, I loved it that the point of this book is a friendship between two women. It passed the hell out of the Bechdel test. When Verity is talking about what a good team she and Maddie make — and you can see them being a good team, and loving the hell out of their own competence and closeness — it’s just marvelous and touching and amazing.

Hopefully by the time this posts Mumsy will have read Code Name Verity also (cause it was one of her Christmas presents and I read it first), and hopefully she will have liked it. It’s fine if not though, Mumsy! I know it is a very dark book and sometimes that is not what the people want.

Other reviews are legion.

43 thoughts on “Review: Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

  1. Whenever I read about this book I wonder if early spies were expected to keep more information under torture than spies now. I’ve watched a few things about more recent captured soldiers and spies, which all talk about how everybody breaks, it’s almost expected, so the goal is to pass out information slowly and keep a last line of defence until the people back home have had time to safely wrap up their operations and change all the information. Maybe during WWII there was more of a belief in the heroic ideal who could hold out until they died? Or maybe not? I would love someone who has some historical knowledge on the subject to pipe up about that.

    • Oh wow, that is a grim goal to have. Wow. Ugh. That’s awful. I have no historical knowledge to add here. The book does not shed light on that precise issue.

    • Me too a bit. I guess it is because Elizabeth Wein is truly a pilot (NB: I just wrote “pirate” and that would be more awesome) and assumes that plane details are interesting to everyone.

  2. So when you say looks the wrong way, you mean she looks the way a car would be coming from in England? Your spy downfall is habit, like the guy in Inglorious Basterds who holds up three fingers for three drinks like an English person, instead of a thumb and two fingers, like a German?

    • Yes! I realize now that was not made perfectly clear. Yes. She looked left when she should have looked right. Exactly what I always did in England, except the other way around.

  3. “There are unexpected events but they aren’t Fingersmith unexpected.” I like that this is a thing now. Because damn, Fingersmith. Damn. Also, your title makes my friends giggle.

    Is this book YA? Because it sounds YA.

  4. Wow, I have read no negative reviews of this book. It’s one of those that I think I should wait a while to read so that I can forget all of the glowing reviews because it wouldn’t be fair to the book for me to read it with such high expectations. But I love, love, love that there is such a strong friendship between women featured in the story!

    What Disney villain would you marry? I realized just now that some pretty awesome Disney villains are female and I don’t think I’d want to marry them, though they would be quite educating to hang around for a bit. Hmm. Tough decision to make!

    • Yep, I think that’s right. I liked it a lot but not entirely as much as I expected from the reviews. Thinking about it later made me like it even more, back up to the high standard I was expecting based on everyone else’s review.

      I would marry Prince John from Robin Hood (human version of Prince John). If I had to! I mean if I HAD to marry ONE of the Disney villains. Gross, I know, but I doubt he’d want sex (ew), and he’d be pretty easy to control. My original thought was Scar (human version of Scar), because at least he’s smart and I could do evil plans with him, but then I remembered Prince John would be less trouble.

  5. I started this book, and read about 40 pages before I stopped. It was so slow in the beginning! I still have it waiting here for me when I am ready for it, and it hasn’t been spoiled for me, but sometimes knowing that there is a twist in something provokes me to eagerly look through all the material to figure it out before it’s announced. That’s why I am going to do what Aarti is doing, and just check back around to it later. I am hoping that the next time I sit down with it it will be a hit!

  6. Sorry Jenny! I have not read it because IT WILL NOT STOP RAINING here and I need a little sunshine before I start down such a dark hallway. But I know the rain cannot last forever, and I have already read three very excellent reviews of this book.

    • Oh, that’s okay! I knew you hadn’t read it yet. I wrote this post way back in December when I read it the first time (I read your copy. Sorry. I really wanted to.). I know when the sun reappears and you have time, you will get to it.

  7. Well now I’m curious to know which Disney villain you would marry, Jenny. And also if that includes villains from ALL disney productions or just those classic animated disney villains as that would narrow down the scope to quite a few distasteful potential husbands..

    • Oh, just the animated films, we decided. Social Sister says she’d marry Gaston, which is insane to me. He’d definitely hit you when he got cross, and he’d mess up your books. And probably kick the cat. Who would you marry? The rules are you’d be marrying the human, gender-appropriate-to-your-sexual-orientation version of the villain. GO. Who?

      • Ergh I’d rather not have to massage his stinkin’ feet every day. And yeah, no book lover in her right mind would consider Gaston. My poor books would end up squished in the mud, not to mention torn up and used as confetti to herald his presence at every function (*would hate to be eclipsed by potential husband*)
        I’d totally marry Hades XD most entertaining of gods in Hercules. I think he’s a lonely soul who could do with some company to make the underworld a less depressing place…I think the stereotypes have ruined his rep and forced him to have to resort to kidnapping girls in order to get any attention.

      • Shoot, didn’t realize you specified must be human. Alright, I guess I’ll have to marry Jafar. At least he has magical powers and can give me whatever I want as long as I pretend to be in love with him (so he won’t chain me to his stupid tower). As long as I don’t look into the cobra’s eyes, I will be able to resist being brain-washed as well. What about you?

  8. I’m glad others asked about the Disney villain you would pick b/c that was my question too. Like Aarti and others, I think I’ll wait until the hype has gone down before trying this one.

  9. OH goodness goodness me! When I got to your sentence –>”I don’t think this book is quite as spoilable as some reviews have made it out to be, but since I admittedly am no authority on what “spoils” a book,…” I remembered how very true this is and had to tell myself to STOP READING THE REVIEW because you have already told me more than I want to know but not more than I probably already figured out. My fault not yours! But I did stop reading your review and even failed to glimpse at what I am sure are the awesome tags. And next time you step out into the streets of Paris, I hope you look in the correct direction and do not fall into the hands of any Gestapo cads.

    • What, no! No! Care, I didn’t spoil anything! Hand to God, I didn’t. She is already captured and revealing information on the first page. I didn’t spoil anything. I tried really hard not to.

  10. I keep seeing people reading this book on the train and assumed it was the next big thing in the 50 Shades of Grey genre. So glad you set me straight on that one! I know I’m not supposed to judge books by covers, but it’s a tough habit to break.

    On another note, I never thought about how many Disney villains are ladies. My question: If you had to help one Disney villain to succeed in their dastardly evil plot, which would one would you assist?

    • Oo. That is an amazing question. I wish I were still home so I could pose that question to the Family. I think I would help someone who opposes a protagonist I find annoying. So like, the Snow White queen? Or Captain Hook?

  11. I want to read this, but I’m not good with torture scenes, and there’s a good chance it would stop me from reading. As long as the torture takes place off scene, it should be fine. This will have to be a library book though, if I make it through and like it as much as everyone says I will, I can buy it.

    • Mmmmm, they aren’t off scene, but they aren’t really graphic. At least I didn’t think so. She talks about what they’re doing to her, but in a sort of arch, concealing way.

  12. It felt like it took FOREVER to get to a point in this book where I realized it was worth reading. But once I got there, OMG was it worth reading. I loved the friendship, I loved Verity’s snarky way of insulting her captors even though she knew it would get her hurt even worse, I even loved the OMG moments that made me cry. So good.

  13. I found your blog through a comment you left on Iris on Books. I was like, “That girl referenced Andrew Marvell! I should go check out her blog!” And then the first post I saw was this one, which is great because I absolutely LOVED Code Name Verity when I read it last year. Off to follow your blog now!

  14. About the book being a huge pitfall to spoilers. I agree, the book wouldn’t be spoiled even if you knew some details that might be considered spoilers. But then again, I never mind spoilers, because usually I just can’t take not knowing what is going to happen and spoil myself on purpose. I remained spoiler free so far as the second half of the book. I think why I found it hard to express my love for this book was because it was the second half of the book that made me love it so much. The first half, while good, was a little slow for me at times.

    • Really? Woe! I’m sad you didn’t like it because it seems like something you would totally like. But it does get off to quite a slow start. If I hadn’t needed to finish it quickly so I could wrap it up and give it to Mumsy for Christmas, I might well have given up in the early stages.

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