Review: Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney

Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney. Delacore Press, 2013. Currently Available.

Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction (the realism though, is debatable)

Janie Face to FaceFace Value: Why are you trapped in a mirror Janie? I mean Jennie? I mean…is it the TWO SIDES OF YOUR EXISTENCE TRAPPED BEHIND SOMETHING? How profound. But seriously, this Shadowy-Trapped-Bodies series of re-issues makes me downright nostalgic for the way more literal original cover art.

Does it Break the Slate? NO! NO WAY! Not in a million years! Janie is a pathetic and whiny brat who is totally thoughtless of everybody around her, all the other female characters are vapid or evil or both, and all need protecting, and marriage is presented as the magical solution to all potential problems ever in the world. I haven’t read the earlier books since childhood, so I am not sure if the earlier books had real Slatebreaking qualities. But they could not possibly have been as bad as this one.

Who would we give it to? Nobody. Seriously. If you are feeling nostalgic for the original series, re-read the first one, or watch the Lifetime movie with Kellie Martin in a red wig, or buy a carton of milk. Do not read this book.

Spoilers ahead…

Review: If you were in elementary school for any of the 1990s, you probably read The Face on the Milk Carton. I read it a bunch of times, because seriously, who hasn’t thought about what would happen if you found out your family wasn’t really your family, and what kid didn’t get a little scared looking at the pictures of missing children on milk cartons or the news or the “Have You Seen Me?” flyers that came in the mail?

Anyway, for all of these reasons, when I read this book in third grade I was totally captivated by the story of Janie Johnson, who sees her own picture on the back of a milk carton and finds out that the people she thought were her parents weren’t actually her parents. When Janie was three years old she was kidnapped by a mentally ill woman named Hannah, who panicked and dropped the kid with her parents, Frank and Miranda. The Johnsons had no idea that Janie wasn’t actually related to them, and raised her as their own child. But it turns out, Janie is actually Jennie Spring, and her family has been searching for her for twelve years. Trying to deal with two families and a major identity crisis, Janie ends up going back to live with the Johnsons, but remains conflicted about who she is.

Four books and a whole bunch of drama later (not to mention more than 2 decades since the original publication date), we have Janie Face to Face. Janie is in college, and trying to balance the complicated truth in her past, and move ahead with her own future. It could be interesting, right? Except it isn’t.

On a really basic level, the plot of this story makes essentially no sense. As if there wasn’t enough drama in the original situation, this book turns Hannah, the mentally ill young woman who kidnapped Janie in the first place (a really heartbreaking story, in the earlier versions) a kind of crazy maniacal villain, who is plotting evilly to get back at everyone for no reason whatsoever. I really feel like in earlier versions this character was portrayed as someone who was scared and very sick and did something terrible, not a one-note cartoon lunatic villain, but instead Hannah’s evil plotting consists of nonsensical “crazy person” ramblings like

“She decided she wanted ice cream. At the food court she was shocked by how much they charged and had to take another turn around the mall to walk off her fury. How dare they ask that much! American society was so greedy.”

Or

“It was such a good feeling to evaporate. And this time, the woman who evaporated had money. And they could never catch her, because she was smart and they were stupid.”

Never mind how we are supposed to reconcile the fact that a woman capable of plotting a comprehensive devious revenge scheme isn’t capable of functioning as an adult on the most basic level. When we’re not getting into Hannah’s stereotypically psychopathic brain, we have to listen to Janie whining about not knowing who she is, and the various Spring siblings whining about how hard their lives are because they have to revolve around Janie. Seriously, the whine-level in this book is off the charts.

But luckily, everything works out! Because Janie is going to drop out of college and marry her loser high school boyfriend Reeve, who totally exploited Janie’s story a few years back, and who she hasn’t even been dating in awhile! And they’re going to get married 10 days after he surprises her by proposing in the airport! And everything is ok, because now Janie doesn’t have to decide between Janie Johnson and Jennie Spring, she can be Mrs. Reeve Shields!

I know it sounds like that would be another element of Janie’s life that is messed up because of what happened to her, but no seriously, this is presented as the happy resolution to everything bad that happened to her before.  “My beautiful daughter has done all the right things” Donna Spring thinks to herself as she watches her 20-year old marry an immature jerk. Even the characters who are skeptical agree that this is the best possible plan after about 20 seconds of convincing, and planning a wedding brings the family together in a way that nothing could before. I wish I was kidding.

Plus, the way women are depicted in this book made my whole body cringe. Not only is Janie’s whole self wrapped up in the idea of marrying Reeve so he can protect her, but every female character in this book (except for crazy Hannah of course) needs to be protected by their brothers, fathers, boyfriends, etc. Right before the ceremony, when everyone is afraid that Hannah will appear and kill people (yes), previously sulky-angry brother Brendan explains to the team of brothers and fathers and male police officers who have assembled in protection “my sister, my mother, and Miranda Johnson need to have this wedding. It has to be safe and happy.” The wedding, of course, with its dresses and flowers, is for the women. The protecting is for the men. That is very romantic.

And then there’s Kathleen, the girlfriend of Janie’s oldest brother Stephen. Kathleen, who is stuck with narrative tracks like:

“Kathleen breathed quietly so Stephen would not remember she was there. Stephen liked a girl who was somewhat in his life, not a girl who dominated it.”

Or

“She had a sad fleeting thought that she should break up with Stephen. College was prime husband-hunting territory. This very semester, she would finally finish college and have to find work in an office somewhere, and she’d have no hope.”

And then of course, after seeing Kathleen being treated horribly by Stephen the whole book, it doesn’t end with her breaking up with him. It ends with her catching Janie’s bouquet. I wish I were joking. 

I guess we can only hope that that story doesn’t merit another sequel.

Reviewed from library copy.

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