The Face on the Milk Carton: When Books Reach Their Expiration Dates

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I picked this book up several months ago, when I first had the idea to start a book review blog.  I wrote a review soon after I read it, but I no longer agree with everything I wrote.  So I cobbled together an impression based on my old review and the summary of the book on Wikipedia.  It may not be the best review I’ve written, but this is the book that gave me the idea for this blog.  I felt like it was important.

So.  The Face On The Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney.  An intriguing premise: A teenaged girl named Janie sees a picture of herself on a milk carton next to the words “Missing Person.”  She tries to uncover the sordid, complicated truth of her past, but the secrets cause her stress and put a strain on her relationship with her boyfriend.  It absolutely sounds like something I would read and enjoy.  But is it any good?  Well…

I will give this book credit.  It was very clever.  The plot was engrossing, and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time (if you’ll pardon the cliché).  I wanted to find out who Janie’s real parents were, and where she came from.  The answers to these questions, too, were unexpected.  I felt like the ending was satisfying, and worth the suspense.

Despite all of this, there were two things that prevent me from calling this book “good.”  One is that the writing is…annoying, I suppose, would be the best way to put it.  The main character’s thoughts are repetitive and grating, and the dialogue is stilted, unrealistic, and awkward.  Cooney seems to be trying very hard to paint Janie as a “normal teenage girl,” perhaps to make her odd situation more relatable.  Unfortunately, she fails in this, as Janie does not talk or act remotely like any teenage girl I know.  She uses outdated terms and phrases (such as “don’t let’s do that”), and her only interests are shopping and boys.

The other thing about this book that I didn’t like was Janie’s relationship with Reeve.  Reeve is her older (MUCH older, if I remember correctly) boyfriend, who lives next door.  Their relationship is unrealistic and awkward. It starts rather randomly (Reeve suddenly pulls her under a pile of leaves and kisses her) and continues in the same fashion.  They will go from deciding to just be friends to preening each other and talking about sex in the space of paragraphs, with little to no explanation.  It reads much more like a teenager’s fantasy of a relationship than an actual relationship.

And then there’s the fact that Reeve is constantly trying to have sex with Janie.  He pesters her about it constantly, even if she is under a lot of stress or clearly uncomfortable with his suggestions.  At one point, he even breaks up with her because of this, then immediately begins dating an older girl (who presumably puts out).  The really disturbing thing, however, is Janie’s response.  She blames herself for not wanting to have sex with Reeve, and the novel agrees with her.  After the breakup, for example, she responds with, “What mattered to Reeve, thought Janie, [was] being first in somebody’s life.  I put [my problems] first.  He took it for a long time, considering” (p. 169).  What does this tell teenagers reading this book? Always put your boyfriend first, no matter what.  If you’re going through an emotionally tough time in your life, too bad.  The boyfriend still comes first, otherwise he’ll break up with you and date someone more sexually available (oh, and forget about sexual boundaries.  Just do whatever he wants.  Resistance is futile).

This, and some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fat-shaming and homophobia, make this book a distinctly anti-feminist read.  The negative and problematic messages, coupled with the awkward writing, made this book irksome and downright unpleasant.  My verdict?  Not So Great.  There are several better books out there.  Leave this one on the shelf.

Thank you for reading.  I would very much appreciate any feedback and constructive criticism about my writing and my thoughts about the book.  This is a learning process for me, and I appreciate your help!  My review of Gone will be up by the end of the week.