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Review: Crooked Hearts, by Lissa Evans
HarperCollins, 2015. 282 pp. $25

Vera Sedge’s life is a painfully funny mess. It’s 1940, and London’s getting pounded by the Blitz, but to her, that’s not the worst; the war seems just “out there” someplace. Rather, Vee, as she’s called, runs herself ragged caring for her lazy, selfish nineteen-year-old son, excused from military service because of a heart murmur and running around somewhere, doing things he refuses to talk about. Her dotty mother, also living with them in a northwest suburb, expects to be waited on too, while she writes long, chatty letters to Mr. Chamberlain (and then Mr. Churchill) to complain, in a pen-pally way, about shortages and shoddy goods and refugees who must certainly be spies.

A London house bombed in 1940 (Courtesy Imperial War Museum, public domain).

A London house bombed in 1940 (Courtesy Imperial War Museum, public domain).

Vee would dearly love to latch onto a paying scam; it’s the only way she knows how to earn her meager living. But as a con artist, she’s inept, partly because she rushes headlong into whatever looks good right that second, only to find that the string of lies she’s told don’t hold water, and she’s trapped. She tries passing herself off as a door-to-door fund raiser for the wartime charity du jour but earns more suspicion than income.

Meanwhile, Noel Bostock, a brainy ten-year-old with no friends or social skills (“hobbies are for people who don’t read books”), lives with his demented godmother, Mattie. His tender love for her is all he has in the world, and when she wanders out one night and dies of exposure, Noel’s bereft and alone. The law says that, like all other children living near bombing targets, he should have been evacuated. But, as resistance is his godmother’s legacy–in her heyday, she fought for woman suffrage, chaining herself to fences and serving a prison term–legal authority means nothing to him.

Vee takes Noel in, thinking to pocket the government allowance for harboring an evacuee child, and her first impression is that he’s simple and pliable. Wrong. What she’s found is a partner in crime–a senior partner, the brains behind the operation. Noel, ever organized, quickly figures out which charity they should target, in which neighborhoods, using whatever script he’s concocted for her. Immediately, their efforts bear fruit.

I have to admit, I felt uncomfortable reading about this dynamic duo bilking credulous, good-hearted folk for money that would never reach the widows, orphans, or wounded soldiers it was meant for. Granted, judged against the venal behavior they see around them, they’re small fry. In Evans’s world, nobody has time to be a hero, because being on the take requires every spare minute. If this is England’s finest hour, as Churchill proclaimed, you have to wonder what the brave, doomed pilots in the RAF were fighting for. (Vee, of course, evokes the Churchillian two-finger salute for victory.) Crooked Hearts is a sendup on a small, yet potent scale, a wartime theater of the absurd.

But when there’s no time for heroism, that leaves love, which takes no extra effort or splendid opportunities. You get the sense that Vee and Noel will somehow soften each other’s carefully sheltered heart, and it’s worth finding out how. There’s a dollop of comeuppance for those who really need it, which is satisfying too.

I loved the humor in Crooked Hearts–the letters to the prime minister, the ridiculous scrapes Vee gets into, the ten-year-old who talks over his guardian’s head, the satire on British attitudes. Most of the characters are merely that, a collection of attitudes. But the novel works because Vee and Noel are fragile humans whose desires have been thwarted so long–as in forever–they can’t even name them. Theirs is a fine tale.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.