Thursday, August 27, 2009

Book Review: The Spellman Files

Everyone and their brother seems to love this debut novel by Lisa Lutz. Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, The New York Daily News, People Magazine. Even Paramount producer Laura Ziskin (Spider-Man) snapped up the film rights. EVERYONE. And this time, The Spellman Files is exactly what the critics claim it to be: a hysterically entertaining mix of mystery and chick lit with a sharp, somewhat self-destructive heroine.

The Spellman Files follows a family of quirky--and at times, just plain crazy--private investigators with the eldest daughter, Izzy Spellman, as the guide. Lutz lays out a vast foundation for her series in this first book, really introducing you to Izzy and her hilarious family members with a wit and cynicism that you can't help but love. Mr. and Mrs. Spellman are parents one can only imagine have been exaggerated but really would take their young daughter down to the basement (aka the Interrogation Room) and question her till she admits to stealing that cookie from the cookie jar. Rae Spellman, Izzy's younger sister, really does make a sport of surveilling strangers, negotiating punishments, and bribing her siblings. David Spellman didn't take to PI work as well as the others though, becoming instead a lawyer--his family needs someone to get them out of their messes, don't they? Uncle Ray, an ex-cop, is a hysterical mess, who spends days groveling over his kidnapped t-shirt (Rae, of course), and his disappearing acts--known fondly to the family as "lost weekends"--are accepted by all involved, if not expected.

Then there's Izzy, our loveable heroine. Izzy's the kind of girl who would slash her parents' tires right in front of them to keep them from tailing her (though they naturally find a way around it), who would smash one of their headlights with a hammer so she could find them in traffic (they'd smash hers back), and who would go to visit her dentist ex-boyfriend #9 at the office just to nap in his comfy chairs and then request to borrow his BMW for a high-speed chase that can only end in destruction of property. Izzy will make you laugh so hard you cry, even while you're crying inside wanting her to love herself as much as we love her, despite her many, many flaws.

This novel is clearly character-driven with its glorious cast of characters, though the Spellmans' adventures throughout are certainly entertaining. The investigation of the Spellmans themselves makes for an interesting contrast for a family always looking through a magnifying glass at someone else, though it was under-developed throughout the first 3/4 of the novel. Izzy's detective work on the Snow case was additionally compelling, though it was wrapped up in a nice little bow by someone else. I'd much rather have seen Izzy actually solve the case correctly. It would not only satisfy me as a reader, but hey, maybe it'd up her minimal self-esteem a little bit, strengthening her character and showing some growth on her part.

I was also a bit disappointed by the lack of cohesiveness of the plot throughout. There is so much going on in was difficult to invest myself in more than just the family itself. I care about the story because I cared about the characters--not a bad thing necessarily, but it made me feel like I was missing a little something along the way. Moreover, rather than weaving the subplots together to make it feel less detached, the action is divided structurally by giving each subplot its own chapter numbers, so the book ends up with multiple chapter 1's. The sections are already jumping around in time, so why give the reader something else to be confused about? It's somewhat minor of a grievance though, as I still found this book to be highly entertaining and thoroughly recommendable.

The last word: A laugh-out-loud, delightfully fun debut that's a little rough around the edges but totally worth a read!

And check out the other books in the Spellman series: Curse of the Spellmans (now available in TP and HC, coming to MM in Feb. 2010) and Revenge of the Spellmans (now available in HC).

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