This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 18.2
“A Cautionary Tale for Young Divas” is how I would subtitle Wren Handman’s Last Cut. The protagonist—16-year-old Caitlin—is carefully crafted as a self-interested aspiring actress with talent, and serious attitude. Initially, I wondered whether young readers would continue with the book; there are perhaps too many subtle clues of Caitlin’s real nature for readers to like her. Maybe that’s not necessary, though, for all readers. Those who persevere with the novel will be rewarded with an intimate glimpse into the dangerous and damaging problems into which naïve hubris can lead one.
Overly sure of her acting ability, Caitlin tries out for—and lands—a role in a “professional” movie. To take part, she has to skip school, which requires lying to her parents. She also has to be 18, which requires lying on her contract… which she doesn’t read anyhow. In telling her friends about the audition, she lies that “they totally loved me … they even asked me to stay for, like, a second audition afterwards that they only give to the people they really want to see” (31). My patience with Caitlin by this point was growing thin, but my respect for Handman’s authorial abilities was increasing. I may not like Caitlin, but I have to admit that she and her friends seem very much like high school girls I know, with the same relationships, the same catty games, the same petty jealousies, well expressed. When Caitlin surfaces from her work to attend a party, her friends Hannah and Suzanne are overjoyed to see her; her response is telling: “they’re overdoing it just enough that I can tell they don’t mean it. I mean, it isn’t that they’re not happy to see me. It’s just that they know they hurt my feelings on Wednesday, so now they’re overcompensating to try to make me feel good. They’re acting so excited to see me that it really feels fake, and I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm” (89). The relationship between honesty, sincerity, acting, and artifice finally comes home to Caitlin, but it is too late: in the end she learns a hard lesson, and has gambled away most of what she thought she had for a dream of stardom that was doomed at the outset by her own dishonesty.
My one real reservation about the novel lies in where we are left. Topless photos of a Caitlin, aged 16, are circulated by the movie’s publicity people before her age is discovered. The severity of this situation is earlier alluded to by the casting director—before we know any photos have been released—but we are left with no indication of what this ultimately will mean for Caitlin, for her family, or for the movie producers. Child pornography is a very serious issue, and it feels like Last Cut trivializes the situation by leaving it unresolved. The final scene exacerbates the problem; Caitlin’s boyfriend is angry enough to leave her, telling her that her concerns are pointless, that “the whole world doesn’t revolve around you” (141), when in fact her concern is at least partially founded on the fact that her stupidity has caused considerable legal problems—perhaps criminal prosecution—for the movie producers who gave her a chance. Perhaps the teen reader will not care, but personally prefer to have real-world legal problems not left hanging. The criminal justice system within which Handman—as a realist author—is writing provides many possible answers: it would be nice if we were told which Handman envisions for her characters.