Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

British paperback, Bloomsbury
Code Name Verity fans will be overjoyed to learn that Elizabeth Wein has written a brilliant prequel to her bestseller spy thriller. The Pearl Thief is set in 1938 Scotland, where 15-year-old Julie is spending one final summer on her deceased grandfather's estate. This parlor mystery is far more innocent and sweet than Wein's World War II novels. The Pearl Thief reads like an Agatha Christie mystery for young teens, but the gorgeous writing, Shakespearean themes, and historical details would appeal to adult readers too.

Due to the 1930's British setting, The Pearl Thief reminded me of a favorite classic, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Once again we have a formerly wealthy family living on an estate with a crumbling castle, which mirrors their reversal of fortune. There's a clash between teen-idealized romance and the carnal desires of adults. The lyrical writing style and bucolic setting are similar, but it's the eloquent girl protagonist, who yearns for a grander life, that makes these books unforgettable.

The Pearl Thief's central plot is a missing man mystery. Police dredge the river for a body when a museum scholar, hired to catalogue the grandfather's treasures for auction, vanishes while digging for pearls. Julie was the last to see the scholar alive, but she was hit on the head and can't remember what happened. Having devoured many mysteries as a teen, I guessed the main culprit in the early chapters. That didn't spoil the story because most of the suspense comes from worrying if Julie will string the clues together in time and act sensibly.

American hardcover, Disney Hyperion
Julie has trouble controlling her impulses, leading to risky behavior. She's a beautiful girl full of dualities: revelling in silk ballgowns and rare river pearls but also envious of her brothers' freedom. Once her hair is cut short, Julie tries on gender identities playfully like Shakespearean costumes. The bisexual undertones in Code Name Verity are further explored in this progressive prequel while still adhering to the conservative morality of the time period and of her aristocratic class. The most controversial part of The Pearl Thief is Julie's crush on a middle aged man, who encourages her flirtations.

Rebellious Julie bulks against societal norms to befriend a deaf librarian with facial deformities and a family of Travellers. She has to overcome her own prejudices to earn their trust. Wein makes all her characters realistically flawed: the Travellers and the deaf woman are also prejudiced against each other. No one is perfect, but characters can learn from their mistakes and change.

American paperback
Over the course of The Pearl Thief, Julie grows into the young woman who will become the spy Verity. This delightful prequel feels like it was written first, and the books could be read in either order. I appreciate Code Name Verity all the more for understanding the backstory, and I hope Elizabeth Wein writes another Julie novel. Julie/Verity is one of my favorite YA heroines. Code Name Verity (2012) is available now in paperback. The Pearl Thief will be released on May 2nd in the USA & Canada and on May 4th in the UK.

My reviews of other historical YA novels by Elizabeth Wein:
Code Name Verity
Rose Under Fire
Black Dove, White Raven

Reviewer's  Disclosure: Since I've reviewed other novels by Elizabeth Wein, Disney Hyperion USA offered me the ARC of The Pearl Thief. The digital galley had formatting errors, making it unreadable, so I requested a print galley from Bloomsbury UK (I'm on sabbatical in England.) Borrowing a clue from the mystery, the Bloomsbury galley came with (fake) pearls in the envelope! Elizabeth Wein is a blog buddy and my favorite historical YA author. One of her editors, Kate Egan, is a friend of mine too.

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@Barrie Summy

11 comments:

Jenn Jilks said...

This seems to be the thing to do, prequels. I'm not sure how I feel about them!

Bee said...

I'm extremely excited to read this book! I adore Wein's other novels, and the character of Julie is definitely someone I want to learn more about. You always write good reviews, Sarah, but this one is exceptionally good.

Rose said...

Until recently, I didn't realize that British and American copies of books often had different covers--any idea why? Another great review, Sarah; being such a mystery fan myself, I'm glad to see there are young adult mysteries as well.

Stacy said...

Oh, how fun! I will have to read this and then pass it on to the 13-year-old. It sounds like it would be right up Mira's alley.

In a random side note, I think I actually prefer the US cover for once. Normally, I'm envious of the UK covers.

Lucy said...

Great review! I was going to ask if you could read this one first but you answered that in your review. Definitely sounds like a book worh reading. Thanks for the review!

Barrie said...

Wow! Sounds excellent. This book has all sorts of elements I love...mystery, history, Julie, Wein. Thank you for reviewing! (p.s. I wish it were out now. I'm loading up my kindle for an upcoming trip.)

cynthia said...

Love the fake pearls in the envelope with the galley--very clever!

troutbirder said...

Well yes. The Scottish background has me these days as I'm trying to understand their political disdain for "Brexit." Of course reading a well characterized mystery doesn't hurt either...:)

thecuecard said...

Since the prequel is not out until May, I have time to go back and read Code Name Verity. I know it was hugely popular. I like the sound of this new one though, being sweeter and more innocent and like an Agatha Christie mystery. Did you like the first one more?

Sarah Laurence said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah Laurence said...

Jenn, I always have doubts about prequels and sequels, but this one works.

Bee, thanks! I'm looking forward to reading your review of this book.

Rose, it's not the same publisher abroad so they use their own team of designers and marketers. Often what might work in one country, would not in another. It's especially confusing when they give the same book different titles. I'm always looking for new YA mysteries since I loved Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie as a kid.

Stacy, me too!

Lucy, enjoy!

Barrie, you'll love this mystery. Thanks for hosting the book review club!

Cynthia, the pearls were a fun surprise.

troutbirder, the Scots might part with the UK to remain in the EU. Well educated citizens understand that Brexit will have harsh economic consequences. Xenophobia and conservatism are driving Brexit, and the Scots tend to be more liberal and identify with the underdog.

Cue, Code Name Verity was one of my absolute favorite books ever, but I see The Pearl Thief as an extension of that book. Still, it you were only to read one, I'd recommend CNV, which is better geared for older readers.