Janie Face to Face. by Caroline B. Cooney. January 8, 2013. Delacorte Books for Young Readers. 352 pages. ISBN: 9780385742061
This latest YA novel by Caroline Cooney is the conclusion (really this time!) of the popular Janie Johnson series begun back in 1990 with The Face on the Milk Carton. This final book addresses all the issues explored in the first book and its four other sequels: Janie’s two families, her relationship with Reeve, the motives and mental state of her kidnapper, and Janie’s own true name and identity. The plot focuses mainly on two things - a true crime writer who is trying to collect interviews from Janie’s family about her kidnapping, and Janie’s sudden engagement to long-time on-again, off-again boyfriend Reeve Shields. Practically every character ever introduced in any of the books makes an appearance - both Johnson parents, both Spring parents, and all the siblings, Stephen’s girlfriend, Kathleen, Sarah-Charlotte, the family’s FBI agent, and of course, Hannah Javensen. Because of the huge cast, the story reads like a reunion episode of a 90s sitcom.
That sitcom reunion feeling is exacerbated by Cooney’s constant gratuitous use of technology. Her characters, who have previously not been very tech-savvy, due to the time period in which the series began, suddenly only read books on e-readers, constantly update their Facebook pages with no regard for their privacy, and text each other messages and pictures every time anything significant happens. It’s as though Cooney is trying too hard to make her book relevant to today’s teens. Unfortunately, her knowledge of technology seems to come from generalizations in magazine articles and not from any experience with actual teenagers. I think I’d have liked it better if she’d left the technology out altogether; at least then this book would have felt more in tune with the earlier ones of the series.
I also took issue with the way Cooney uses Catholicism in this story. Having just gotten married in the Catholic church myself, I might be more aware of these inconsistencies than a non-Catholic reader, but it drove me nuts that Janie was allowed to plan a wedding in a Catholic church on such short notice, and that neither she nor Reeve were required to be Catholics themselves. I think even the wedding ceremony itself was incorrectly described. I’m a huge fan of religious themes in books for children and teens, and I love many of them, but it’s a real pet peeve of mine when authors don’t bother to portray a specific religion accurately. Authors who name specific religions in their books have a responsibility to be respectful and do their homework on how those religions operate.
My biggest problem, overall, is that I never felt settled into the story. Every time I got used to one character’s mindset, the narrative shifted into someone else’s. I can imagine that after years with these characters, the author might know what every character would think and feel in a whole host of situations, but that doesn’t mean every single one of those reactions should make it onto the page. I found it exhausting having to keep track of who knew what, and who held which opinion about Hannah, and I looked forward to the end of the book. The ending, too, is significantly flawed in my opinion because it does not fulfill what I think the title promises: a face to face encounter between Janie and her kidnapper. There is a resolution of sorts to Hannah’s role in the entire story, but after so many years and so many books speculating about her life, her motivation, her mental state, and her living conditions, I expected a much better one with a lot more excitement. There is a ton of build-up throughout the story that made me anticipate a whopper of an ending, but everything fizzles out in the last chapter, and I was halfway into the author’s note before I realized the story was even over.
The Face on the Milk Carton remains a fond memory from my early teen years, and it’s a book I still think kids should read today, whether it seems dated or not. I’m less certain about the sequels, and I think all but the most devoted fans can skip this final installment, which only detracts from the strengths of the original premise.
I received a digital ARC of Janie Face to Face from Random House via NetGalley.
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