I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter. New York, NY: Hyperion, 2006 [Disney-Hyperion, 2016]. 284 pages. ISBN: 142310003-4. Ages 12 and up.
This novel, with its clever yet over-long title, is the first book in Ally Carter’s bestselling Gallagher Girls series, which I’d never heard of before about a week ago when it happened to cross my desk. I picked this up because it has a funny premise; since it’s thematically related to the sort of thing I usually discuss here, it seems worthy of a book review.
Upon finishing this novel, my opinion is much the same as the one I started with: it has a funny premise. And that’s about it.
The premise is that a prestigious yet cloistered all-girls’ boarding school, the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women, located outside the small town of Roseville, Virginia, is actually a training ground for secret agents—the same type of impossibly flashy secret agents one finds in ’60s spy thrillers. The book’s narrator is fifteen-year-old Cammie Morgan, a student at the school whose mother, an ex-CIA agent, is the headmistress. As she’s now in eighth grade, Cammie needs to decide if she’s going to continue in Covert Operations (“CoveOps”) in preparation for fieldwork, or instead take a training path that will land her a cushy desk job. The decision is complicated by the fact that her father died in the field several years before under circumstances that are classified.
During a routine training exercise, Cammie runs across Josh, a normal teenage boy who attends the local high school. She instantly falls head over heels for him, and that drives the plot, what there is of it. Most of the book involves Cammie, with the help of her girlfriends, using her espionage skills to stalk Josh, whose mere presence can reduce her from [allegedly] competent spy-in-training to ditzy schoolgirl. It’s funny—at first. Although they are supposedly geniuses with intensive training in everything from computer hacking to hand-to-hand combat, Cammie and her friends mostly act like teenage airheads who happen to have access to rappelling equipment.
The story is slow to get started, largely because the first third of the book is dedicated to introducing characters. The school gets a new CoveOps teacher, the handsome Joe Solomon, who sends the academy’s male-deprived student body all atwitter. Since the Gallagher Girls series undoubtedly takes influence from Harry Potter, we might reasonably assume that a new teacher teaching an especially interesting subject will turn out to be a villain—and we’d be wrong, because that would be more plot than I’d Tell You I Love You is interested in having.
Cammie has two girlfriends she hangs out with, the tough and clearheaded Bex, daughter of MI6 agents, and the geeky and timid Liz, who’s more competent behind a computer than in the field. Much of the book is taken up with the arrival of a new pal, Macey, a spoiled yet troubled rich girl with no background in espionage, whose parents use their connections to get her into the Gallagher Academy without realizing the school’s true mission. Macey is a fish out of water who serves a dual purpose, to be the one to whom the spy kids explain things for the reader’s benefit, and to be the one who explains normal stuff to the spy kids for their benefit. Since this is allegedly a novel about dirty deals and double-crosses, we might reasonably assume that Macey will turn out to be a double agent—and, again, we’d be wrong.
Cammie’s relationship with Josh is supposed to be the novel’s core, but it’s unfortunately unconvincing, mostly because she falls for him after two conversations lasting less than a minute. Even granted that she’s a hormone-addled teen who probably hasn’t seen a boy her own age for several months, that’s hard to swallow. There isn’t a lot to say about Josh because Carter makes it a point of highlighting that he’s ordinary, though she does let us know in excessive detail about his gorgeous hair, his gorgeous eyelashes, etc. Given that this is a book supposedly about spies-in-training, we might expect a big twist in which Josh turns out to be a KGB agent from an all-boys’ school that is Russia’s equivalent to the Gallagher Academy—and, once again, we’d be wrong.
There is so much missed opportunity for awesomesauce in this novel. Nothing happens. Nothing. I kept waiting for North Korea to kidnap Josh and for Cammie to run to his rescue in violation of the faculty’s orders and thereby create an international fiasco, but it never happens. I kept waiting for Joe Solomon to steal the yellowcake from the top-secret weapons lab located under Roseville and for Cammie and her friends to concoct a harebrained scheme to stop him, but it never happens. I can think of a dozen entertaining plots that Carter could have built on this book’s zany premise, and so can you, but None. Of them. Happen.
This novel is based around a motif common to cartoons and other stories for kids, which TVTropes calls “Wake Up, Go to School, Save the World.” This motif depicts superheroics, monster-fighting, or spying as relatively easy activities, compared to which getting up on time, doing homework, or dealing with peer-pressure are hideously difficult. Carter tries to play it to the hilt, but doesn’t quite succeed. Cammie, as narrator, repeatedly makes comments like this:
I could have said hi back in fourteen different languages (and that’s not including pig Latin). And yet I was speechless as he came to stand in front of me.
This becomes a running gag in the book, in which Cammie repeatedly says something to the effect of “I can do [insert awesome spy thing], but I can’t handle [insert normal thing].” It’s funny the first five times. Then it gets old. Then, coupled with the lack of plot, it gives the impression that Gallagher Girls are all talk and no action.
This impression becomes cemented shortly before the book’s climax when the Gallagher Girls are allowed out of the cloister to spend a day in town. One of the girls, a minor character whose name I can’t remember, gets cornered in a drugstore by a group of high school jocks.
This scene rings false for a couple of reasons, first of them being that these high school kids have no motive for accosting this girl. Supposedly, the townies resent the Gallagher students for being rich and snooty, but the bullying depicted here is not believable: boys bully other boys to establish or challenge the pecking order, but they harass girls for only one reason—to get tail. A guy who resented a girl for being rich and stuck-up and out of his league might grouse about her from a distance, but he wouldn’t confront her with a pack of his buddies like this. This is girl-style bullying, but Carter attributes it to boys, and it doesn’t work.
The second reason this scene doesn’t work is because this girl, when confronted, folds like wet paper even though she’s supposed to be a super-spy. So, we are to believe, the Gallagher Girls can play cat-and-mouse with enemy agents, topple third-world dictators, kill people with household items, and disarm nuclear warheads with their teeth, but they turn into a pile of mush when confronted with a real threat, like a rowdy group of teenagers.
Right around page 200, it appears that the story may finally be getting started when some masked men grab Cammie and throw her into the back of a windowless van, but it’s just a tease: turns out this is another training exercise. Because this top-secret spy school is stupid enough to pull off a stunt like that in the middle of town where anyone can see it, Josh mistakenly believes Cammie has been kidnapped for real, so he tries to run to her rescue, but plays no significant role in the events that follow.
I’ll try to avoid spoiling the book’s final moments, but I will say this: Major letdown. If you are hoping to see Cammie save the world and get the guy, forget it. You won’t see any of that. None of it.
Although there is occasionally some convincing lingo, the novel for the most part lends the impression that Carter didn’t do any real research. There are little hints here and there that she doesn’t know what microfilm is, or how electricity works. Granted, it’s a humorous book aimed at a young audience, but it could have benefited from more effort put into verisimilitude. Some things are simply not well thought-out: for example, the climax involves a guy driving a forklift through a concrete wall, and instead of killing himself, he successfully demolishes the wall. It takes about five seconds of serious consideration to figure out why that wouldn’t work.
Although it’s not heavy-handed, there’s also a touch of misplaced feminist grandstanding. Right at the tail-end of the final action scene, Cammie makes some triumphant comment about how people routinely underestimate Gallagher Girls. This comment might have been effective if she had said it about some villain she’d just defeated, but since she instead says it about a professor who has no good excuse for underestimating his students, the comment falls flat.
The characters are likable if not memorable, it’s a fast read, and it does have a funny premise, which may explain why it was popular in spite of its failure to live up to its potential. I can’t help but think that it might have been great with a better editor, an editor with the courage to send it back and say, “Submit this again once it has a plot.”