From: Bett Devlin
To: Avery Bloom
Subject: you don’t know me
but I’m writing to you anyway. […] I found your address online. You have a strange name. I never met anyone called Avery. But that made it easier to find you. So thank you for having that name.
If you are the kind of reader to be immediately seduced by a narrator’s voice; the kind of reader who thrives on dialogue and has little time for descriptions of how the weather looked as Character A walked to the station as they contemplated Character B’s look over breakfast that morning; if you love to read someone’s email over their shoulder on the train: epistolary novels will probably be up your street. They are all voice, and they are voice in full flight, tangling, clashing and dancing with another voice (or two, or three –in this book at least). The voices of To Night Owl From Dogfish zing at one another across the miles: Bett in California (“If I could be any animal I’dchoose a dogfish. I love dogs + I love to swim. A dogfish is a SHARK. Noteveryone knows this”) and Avery in New York City (“I guess if I could be any animal it would be a night owl. I do a lot of reading at night when I’m supposed to be asleep but that’s not the worst thing in the world”).
They have been brought together by an emergency. Bett and Avery are twelve-year-olds who each live with their single Dads, each in their own idyllic world, private world. But their Dads are no longer single. As Bett explains to Avery, having broken into her father’s email, “Your dad + my dad met 3 months ago in Chicago at a building expo [and] THEY ARE NOW A COUPLE.” To add insult to injury, the girls find they are being sent to the same ‘Summer Programme for Inquisitive Teens‘N’ Tweens’ to encourage them to form a sisterly bond.
Mutually furious at the whole idea, the two girls plot to disrupt things and keep the two men apart: “How do two people even have a relationship when they live 3,000 miles apart? Doesn’t that mean it’s all in their heads? How do we get it out of their heads?” And of course, whilst collaborating on this project, they must be scrupulously careful not to become friends themselves.
A novel in email sounds slow and pensive, but they can be action movies in real time. Every revelation, every rebuke, every bright idea, every gap between one reply and another is like the electrical energy built up by a whirling, complex friction generator: electromagnetic energy, in fact, ever drawing you back for just one more page. Then there are the conversations we don’t see, or the secrets the girls don’t have access to, and Wolitzer and Goldberg Sloan take full advantage of the form to hide increasingly big twists in plain sight.
I picked up my copy on a whim,one Saturday in Oxford. I had finished it by Sunday evening. Not only that, I was desperate to read it aloud to my partner – till I was halfway through, thatis. By then, I knew I mustn’t spoil his experience of reading it for himself. I don’t want to spoil it for you either. (And now that I’m writing these shorter reviews, I don’t have room to talk about what it means to me to see a middle-gradenovel with this storyline, and handled with such exuberance and charm.) This book is a sheer delight. Read it.