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Book Review

The Jigsaw Jungle by Kristin Levine has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Twelve-year-old Claudia Dalton and her mother worry when Dad goes missing. His postcard arrives a few days later, saying he needs to sort some things out. Since Claudia’s mom is due at a two-week conference in Switzerland, Claudia stays with her paternal grandfather. Papa is still grieving the recent loss of his wife, Lily, and doesn’t feel ready to entertain his granddaughter. Claudia pushes the issue; she needs to stay close enough to home to meet Dad, if and when he returns.

Dad communicates sparsely, giving Claudia clues on jigsaw pieces from his large childhood puzzle collection. The clues lead Claudia, her new friend, Luis, and Papa to museums around nearby Washington, D.C., and to old home videos. Luis films everything they find on Dad’s disappearance so he can make a movie for class.

The entire story is told through emails, phone conversations, receipts, driving directions, hotel reservations, itineraries and audio and video transcripts. Papa records messages to his beloved wife, sharing how much he misses her and telling her about his growing relationship with his granddaughter. He helps the kids by taking them to follow leads and by revealing things he remembers about his son’s childhood. Mom writes from Switzerland, expressing anger and confusion about her missing husband.

After following clues for nearly two weeks, Claudia discovers a map on the back of a puzzle. It leads them to a time capsule Dad buried in his childhood. Inside is a letter Dad wrote to his friend, Brian, in 1987. Dad expresses his embarrassment for trying to kiss Brian at a movie. Papa and Claudia don’t know what to make of this information and wonder if Dad is gay. They share the letter with Mom when she returns.

Mom is angry and hunts down the female school friend with whom Dad is staying. She, Papa and Claudia drive to the woman’s house to confront him. On the way, Mom and Papa share their regrets and wonder how they may have contributed to Dad’s disappearance. Dad is surprised to see them all, and he and Mom have a long conversation. Claudia fights to get Dad to answer her questions as well. He hesitantly admits he’s gay but says he never meant to be unfair to Mom. Back when they got married, 15 years ago, it wasn’t acceptable to be openly gay. He wanted to get married, have kids and be a teacher, so he decided to marry his best friend and be straight. He believed if he worked and prayed hard enough, he could fix himself. Claudia is thankful that he’s shared his honest feelings. She forgives him for leaving and assures him she accepts who he is.

Claudia finds a letter from Lily to her son, written shortly before she died. She tells Dad she suspects he’s gay and doesn’t want him to live his life pretending to be someone he’s not. When Papa reads his wife’s comments, he has a long talk with his son.

Mom and Dad get divorced but remain on good terms. Mom works through her anger and feels some sense of relief, finally understanding what was keeping their marriage from succeeding. Claudia brings Dad a puzzle of a rainbow gay pride flag as an apartment-warming gift.

Christian Beliefs

Papa recalls a preacher at his old church who frequently railed against homosexuality. The pastor and his wife were kind and helpful to Papa and Lily when Lily was dying.

Other Belief Systems


Authority Roles

Claudia’s mom is angry and hurt by her husband’s disappearance. She ultimately feels relief to learn the marriage wasn’t failing because of something she did. Dad runs away and leaves clues for his daughter to decipher because he doesn’t know how to reveal his homosexuality to his family. Papa and Lily support their son’s lifestyle.


The words h--- and crap and the abbreviation OMG appear once or twice.


On an old home movie, Brian says his Uncle Gary is gay. After watching the tape, Papa comments that it was obvious Uncle Gary was gay. Claudia argues that you can’t tell someone is gay just because of an earring and purple shirt. Papa argues that you could back in 1987. This argument puts them at odds for a while, and Papa fears Claudia thinks he’s homophobic. Dad’s time capsule includes a letter he wrote to Brian that same year. In it, he apologized and expressed his embarrassment for trying to kiss Brian. He said he’d hoped Brian felt the same way. He also said he wished he were as brave as Brian’s uncle. Claudia, Papa and Luis discuss the letter, wondering whether Dad is gay. Claudia asks why he would marry a woman if he were.

Then she remembers the Supreme Court has just recently made same-sex marriage legal. She says she supports equal rights but doesn’t want her dad to be gay because of what it does to her family. Papa ponders people he knew in the past who were secretly gay, and he wonders if his son had the same hidden struggles. Luis tells Claudia about a girl in his class with two dads. He knew another student with two moms, and one of the moms had previously been married to a man. He said it was no big deal.

Papa regrets that he and Lily used to attend a church with a pastor who said horrible things about homosexuality. He remembers the pastor saying AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality. Claudia is shocked by the statement, but Papa explains that discrimination was worse in the 1980s. Papa notes the pastor and his wife supported him every week by visiting or dropping off groceries when Lily was sick. But he says now he feels bad for accepting their help.

Claudia doesn’t think people choose to be gay. Her mother agrees. Later, in a private conversation, Claudia forces her father to admit his sexual preference. He says he thinks he’s always known he was gay. He just didn’t want to accept it or talk about it because it felt too personal. When Claudia says his decision was unfair to Mom, Dad says he was trying to be straight. He says he now recognizes one can’t “decide” to be gay. But back then, he honestly believed he could fix himself if he worked and prayed hard enough.

After Claudia has begun coming to terms with her dad’s homosexuality, she starts playfully teasing him about his attempts to dress like a gay man. The family finds a letter Lily wrote to Dad during her illness. She mentions her suspicions that he’s gay. She tells him she loves him no matter what and wants him to be happy. She also tells him to be patient with his dad, since it might be harder for Papa to understand.

Claudia and Luis kiss once.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Lying: Claudia and her mom lie to one of Dad’s old classmates to get the address of the person with whom Dad is staying.

In an endnote, the author says she and her husband of 13 years divorced after he told her he was gay. She says that according to the Straight Spouse Network, there are up to 2 million mixed-orientation marriages. She wrote the book to show how prejudice hurts everyone, not just those being discriminated against. She says her ex-husband remains a loving and involved father to her children.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

12 and up


Kristin Levine






Record Label



G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC


On Video

Year Published





We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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