The Givenchy Code by Julie Kenner

thegivenchycode.jpg HelenKay:  Melanie Prescott – Mel to anyone who knows her – is a diehard Manhattanite with a passion for designer labels and solving puzzles.  She’s also unemployed and on the run from an assassin who claims they’re playing a game and she’s the prey.  No one bothered to tell Mel but she doesn’t have a choice but to join in when the bullets start flying and people she knows start dying. 

When Mel runs into a former boyfriend, Todd, bearing gifts in the form of a prized pair of Givenchy shoes, she thinks – why not?  Around the same time, a stranger hands her a cryptic note to decipher.  The note is a threat, which she ignores.  The boyfriend she keeps for the night.  Mel wakes up to find the boyfriend dead and her life in danger.  A second stranger, this one friendly, handsome and a former Marine, informs her he’s been assigned to protect her.  Having failed once before, he’s not about to let anything happen to Mel. 

Mel quickly discovers that, upon the death of a computer-genius-gone-mad, a popular internet game, Play.Survive.Win (PSW), morphed from virtual to horrifying reality.  With the virtual roles of assassin, protector and target assigned to actual people, the game turns all too real.   Mel and her protector, Matthew Stryker, must unravel a series of clues to find an antidote for the poison racing through Mel, avoid the assassin Lynx, and manage to do it all in twenty-four hours.

Some books are harder to define than others.  The Givenchy Code most comfortably fits into the new subgenre of chick lit mystery.  The heroine’s journey is told in first person.  She is contemporary and sassy.  Her life is filled with designer fashion and a Sex in the City-like desire for the more expensive things in life. 

Mel inhabits a familiar world.  She dumps a boyfriend when the relationship stalls, puts off searching for a more meaningful job for inexplicable reasons and shops despite and ever-dwindling bank account.  Kenner also gives Mel more than the average intelligence and the power to solve her predicament, so long as a man is there to supply the brawn.  And the gun.

Problem is, the first thirty pages are so weighed down with designer-name dropping that it’s tempting to put the book aside.  However, once the initial onslaught of labels ends, the book takes off in a steady rhythm with increasing danger.  The plot races along, in part, as a result of Kenner’s smart use of short, precise chapters.  The story moves back and forth between Mel, Stryker and Lynx, changing point of view with almost every scene.  Both the name-dropping and the POV changes threaten to pull the reader out of Mel’s world, but Kenner manages to hold these differing views together with sharp pacing and an interesting and well-researched plot.

The romance in The Givenchy Code happens more off screen than on.  The building attraction is described but feels to be more based on adrenalin than actual emotion.  While the sex scenes are not described, when they do happen they occur in the middle of the action, leaving the reader to think more here than in most romantic suspense titles – is this the right time for that?

The Givenchy Code  is a fast-paced, adrenalin-fueled read.  The pages flip by with ease but, after the cover is closed, many readers might wonder what happened to the romance.  Most will also wonder what happened to the end of the book.  This is one of those everything-will-be-divulged-in-the-sequel types.  Go into this one knowing the point is Mel and her journey from floundering to self-assured, all while dodging an assassin and racing through the streets of Manhattan.  This book is a peek at what is said to be a new and growing subgenre – a mix of chick lit, romance and mystery.  Even though the balance sometimes doesn’t quite work, this is an introduction worth reading.

Wendy:  Julie Kenner’s The Givenchy Code is a chick-lit suspense, full of action, designer labels and just a touch of romance.  When Manhattan dweller and cipher geek Melanie Prescott receives a pigpen message from a tall, dark, and slightly scary stranger she’s giddy with the possibility that a secret admirer knows her well enough to send her something so close to her heart: a code to crack.  But, when decoded, the message is no sonnet of love; play or die, it says.  Melanie dismisses the note as a joke of questionable taste and settles in for an evening with her ex-boyfriend Todd.  The next morning she wakes to find Todd lying in a pool of blood, shot in the head, and the tall, dark, and now very scary stranger in front of Todd’s apartment warning her against calling the police: Do it, and I’ll kill you right now.  Convinced the man who delivered the “play or die” message is also the person who killed Todd, Melanie knows the threat is not an empty one and escapes before the killer can make good on his promise.  Melanie flees to her apartment, only to run head long into Matthew Stryker, an ex-Marine who says he’s there to protect her.

Stryker explains that someone has taken the massive multi-player online game Play.Survive.Win (PSW) out of the make believe confines of cyberspace and unleashed it on the very real island of Manhattan. Players are assigned roles:  Melanie is a Target, Stryker her Protector, and the tall, dark and very scary man, Lynx, is an Assassin.  Like the cyber version, players—both targets and assassins—follow clues until either the target successfully ends the game or the assassin ends the target’s life.  Awaiting the winner is a cash prize.  Stryker further explains that he knows this as the first target he was assigned was murder in the wake of his disbelief.

Melanie, a one time cyber procrastinator/PSW player, knows the rules: she must play or die.  The clues have been tailored according to her long ago made player profile; they play to her puzzle solving strengths and are her only hope of ending the game alive.  She and Stryler set out on a deadly scavenger hunt through Manhattan, collecting clues and staying as many steps ahead of Lynx as possible. 

Melanie isn’t your average chick-lit heroine.  Yes, she lives in Manhattan.  Yes, she loves Prada, Jimmy Choo, Manolo, and Givenchy.  Yes, she’s worked a series of poorly paying, soulless jobs.  But, Melanie—or Mel as she prefers—has a degree in math, is studying for her masters in history and loves cracking codes and breaking encryptions.  She’s smart, logical and, despite her willingness to go into debt for designer fashions, not the least bit vapid.  What she is not, however, is overly endearing.  At this point in the genre, a love of shoes and a mother who doesn’t understand is more rote than relatable or grounding.  Mel’s acumen sets her apart in a field of heroines—it’s her intellectual strengths that carry her through the PSW game—but that disparity does not coexist well with her standard issue chick-lit characteristics. 

At best, the plot does not allow the reader an easy suspension of disbelief; it works only if the reader chooses to go along for the ride and accept that the PSW game can happen and Mel’s only choice is to play.  The clues are clever enough and delivered at a pace that makes the action intriguing and compelling.  However, the fragile believability teeters on an impossible coincidence, as several clues lead back to Todd’s involvement.  While Todd’s implication is conceivable, whoever set the game up—and those ins-and-outs are never revealed—wouldn’t be aware of Todd’s rekindled interest and reintroduction into Mel’s life, especially since Todd reappears moments before game play begins.   

Unfortunately, the suspense aspects of the story are severely undercut by chapters written in Lynx point of view.  Being privy to the Assassin’s knowledge, thoughts and actions tarnishes any feelings of anxiety and apprehension Mel’s circumstances foster in the reader.  Staying with Mel’s point of view would have kept the reader struggling alongside the protagonist. 

The book never misses a fast-paced step in delivering clues and allowing Mel to solve them.  However, the tone fails to hit an appropriate stride; the designer label name dropping is out of step with the life-or-death plot.  The sarcastic, chick-lit voice is fun, but, too light and inconsequential for the story. 

What there is of the romance that springs between Mel and Stryker reads like an add-on versus an organic plot point.  He’s there protecting her, he’s handsome, their emotions are in a pressure cooker, therefore their attraction and intimacy should follow.  But, as with the airy voice, Mel and Stryker’s passion is negligible to the circumstances.

The Givenchy Code offers an intelligent heroine and an action packed story that struggles to be suspenseful, which is problematic when the story is supposed to be, ostensibly, one of suspense. The unbelievable aspect of the online game coming to life in the streets of Manhattan is both hard to swallow and mired in clichés of a the last decade, when book after book and B-grade movies asked the same question: “What would happen if someone took this online/role playing game too seriously?”

Wendy’s response to HelenKay:  The Givenchy Code employs multiple POVs, switching from Mel’s first person, to third for Stryker and Lynx.  This is a common device in crime novels where the detective is in first person and the bad guy in third.  However, when the bad guy—in this case the assassin, Lynx—is identified and his limitations made known to the reader, the knowledge chips away at the suspense and, at points, the urgency of the protagonist’s plight.  Did you feel the multiple points of view enriched this read or, did the information gained from the overview make it impossible to truly step into Mel’s Givenchy pumps?

HelenKay’s response to Wendy:  The POV switches pulled me out of the story.  The first time the book moved from Mel’s POV to a third person peek into Stryker’s world, I actually flipped back to the beginning to see if I missed something.  That’s never happened before.  After about 70 pages, Kenner’s style became more comfortable for me and the move back and forth no longer served as a distraction.  For avid romance readers (and chick lit readers) this device might seem strange because it’s not the norm.  Kenner made it work but it took some time and I’m not sure if all readers will be willing to give her the time and keep reading.

HelenKay’s final thoughts:  Romance purists aren’t likely to enjoy this one.  For those wanting to try something a little different – think mystery with a dash of romance – this is one is worth a look.  Recommended with reservations for the anti-chick lit and looking-for-romance crowds.  For everyone else, recommended.

Wendy’s final thoughts:  The Givenchy Code is a jack of many genres, yet master of none.  The fast paced action makes the book a page turner but, the chick lit voice and the romance are trivial next to the dark plot.   

You can visit Julie Kenner here and purchase this book here and here.

11 thoughts on “The Givenchy Code by Julie Kenner

  1. I really enjoyed this book. It’s not really marketed towards romance readers and I know my bookstore stocks it in the fiction section. I liked the fast pace and the POV shifts just tripped me up the first time, then it didn’t bother me anymore. I’ve been really enjoying Julie Kenner’s forays into non-romance territory.

  2. I’m another fan of the book. Kenner’s books are usually fun to read, and this was no exception. It wasn’t a keeper for me, but really enjoyable nonetheless. I am looking forward to the sequels, partially to see if the energy can be sustained through a new game/heroine.

  3. The energy and pacing were impressive, as was Kenner’s codebreaking knowledge. I always hate when I read a book and it’s not the end – not so good at waiting. But, if folks are clear this isn’t a romance read, I think they’ll really enjoy it.

  4. I’m not at all surprised to hear this book worked for other readers. The pace never lulls and the game play creates a vested interest. As enjoyable as those elements were, they didn’t–for me–overcome the missteps. Glad you two enjoyed it.

  5. Wendy, isn’t it always interesting to see what some people can ignore, but others can’t? Isn’t always consistent, either. I’m usually a sucker for a page-turner, though later when thinking about them, I see the plot holes,etc that I missed, but others didn’t.

  6. Oh absolutely, Nicole. The reason HK and I decided to go with the dueling review format was exactly that what-I-never-notice-she-picks-up-on and vice versa thing. You know, I love the friends-to-lovers setup–a book really has to fail on multiple levels for me not to like that premise–but HK can’t get past the thin conflict that often accompanies that setup. And, then HK loves romantic suspense, where all I see are the dead bodies piling up.
    I think what you and I (or any two people) see differently about books makes for the most interesting discussions.

  7. > the first thirty pages are so weighed down with
    > designer-name dropping that it’s tempting to put
    > the book aside.
    This comment fascinated me, because I started reading this book and put it aside, in part for this reason. I have such a hard time reading about heroines who must have the designer stuff, even when (or maybe especially when) funds are running low.
    Although I’m not into designers, I usually find myself not being bothered by name-dropping even when other readers are. This time, though, I was put off by it and agree that it weighs down the story. (The part I’ve read, anyway.)

  8. I can usually handle the desinger label stuff – probably a by-product of my love for People magazine and Hollywood, or something. That’s also something I expect in chick lit. But, for some reason, to me the balance seemed off here at the beginning. It was too much. Then the plot started churning and the action took off and all was well. Stick with it. The name thing really is confined to the beginning and a little at the very end but the stuff at the end seems more balanced.

  9. I’m also a sucker for the friends to lovers and will forgive more because I believe they already have a connection (or should).

  10. The friends-to-lovers situation, while I love it in real life, I tend to find it boring in novels. I’ve read some that were good but it’s been a long time. If you have a suggestion from a recent release, I’d love to know about it so I can pick it up.

  11. I love the friends-to-lovers storyline, but I find it works best for me in a shorter format, like a novella. Otherwise, I tend to get a “okay, this book is 100 pages too long” feeling as it drags on, and they STILL don’t know the other person loves them.

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