AUGUST 2, 2011
RED-HEADED KIT CORRIGAN IS ONE of the “Corrigan Three,” triplets whose birth killed their mother, and who are raised by a father, Jimmy. The three were put on stage in their first months of life, their unique birth exploited in order for the family to earn a living during the 1930s and ’40s. From the get-go, Kit’s father has billed her as the saucy actress of the three, and over the course of the story, she slowly grows into her own sense of self as a dancer. At seventeen, she is ready to leave her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, and go to New York City to find stardom on Broadway. But her hometown isn’t as easy to leave as she thinks.
From the first paragraph of Strings Attached, National Book Award winner Judy Blundell throws the reader into the harsh, glittering world of off-Broadway sixty years ago: “COCKTAILS AND SPAGHETTI blinked in cheerful, lipstick-red neon at me from a window.” Kit lands a job in a chorus line and gets a cheap room with one of the other girls, whose good will Kit cannot afford to lose. But when she is distracted by the appearance of Nate Benedict, a notorious mob lawyer and the father of her hometown boyfriend, she steps on toes — literally and figuratively. What follows is a cascading effect that ends in Kit’s accepting Benedict’s offer of a free apartment. He claims he wants to do right by his son, who has joined the army suddenly and whom Kit might eventually wish to marry. Kit has a sinking feeling, however, that Nate’s offer is too good to be true, but she can’t act on it until it is too late and her old life sinks away from her, out of sight.
For a while, it seems as if Nate Benedict can’t possibly be as bad as the papers claim. He’s just a lawyer; he can’t help who his clients are. Even the mob bosses deserve a fair trial, right? When Nate gets Kit a job as a dancer at The Lido, a hot nightclub, Kit wants to tell him the truth, that she and Billy broke up before he joined the army, but she can’t. Without Nate, where would she be? On the street, without a job, or back in Providence, Rhode Island, with her father and her two siblings, Muddie and Jamie. If Kit has any hope of making her dreams of professional dancing come true, she has to take every chance given to her.
Kit tells the reader early on:
Faith seems to grab people and not let go, but hope is a double-crosser. It can beat it on you anytime; it’s your job to dig in your heels and hang on. Must be nice to have hope in your pocket, like loose change you could jingle through your fingers.
It all begins to fall apart when Billy comes to town on leave and, for a little while, Kit (and the reader with her) believes she can have her dreams and Billy, too. Then a man is murdered at the Lido and, because of Nate, Kit is a potential witness. When the papers find out she is living in his apartment, they assume she is his mistress. There are even photos of them dancing together. Now everything looks wrong, and Kit can explain nothing to anyone who matters. She loses one thing after another as the past and present collide and Kit and Billy, Jamie and Muddie, have to examine the results of decisions made when they were infants by those who only pretended to protect them.
As this suggests, Blundell’s plot turns are constantly surprising, though finally believable, since the plot is determined by the characters, whose personalities are deftly portrayed. They are inexorably led forward like a train toward a wreck. The very laws of physics cannot turn away the force of this mass at this speed.
Caught in the web of Kit’s viewpoint, I was as surprised as she was by the turn of events. Blundell’s rendition of her voice is pitch-perfect — a seventeen-year-old who thinks of herself as smart, sassy, and ready for life. She won’t be fooled. She knows the real world. It’s not as if she has lived a sheltered life all these years. But she is seventeen. She pretends to be cynical, but she can’t be. She hasn’t been hurt enough yet, as the adults around her have been. And she is learning about the real motivations of those she loves.
In a particularly poignant scene at the end of the book, when Kit meets up with her aunt Delia, who has disappeared after suing for custody of the triplets, Kit complains: “You were taking us away from our father! […] You got what you wanted and it wasn’t us. It was never us!” To which Delia replies, “It is a terrible, terrible thing, Kitty, not to be loved by those you love. I hope you never find that.” Is it about love, Kit wonders, or is it about possession?
In Strings Attached there is never a clear line, not for Kit and Billy, not for the triplets, not for their father and mother, not for Delia and her lover, not for Billy and his father. Delia is right. It is a terrible thing not to be loved by those you love, and Blundell writes beautifully about a world in which love is everywhere and nowhere.