All Fall Down – Ally Carter: A Study in Not Doing the Research

It’s rare that I start a book and then am so flabbergasted that I have to put it down multiple times. Ally Carter’s All Fall Down was one of those books.

All fall down ally carter

Grace Blakely is absolutely certain of three things:

1. She is not crazy.
2. Her mother was murdered.
3. Someday she is going to find the killer and make him pay.

As certain as Grace is about these facts, nobody else believes her–so there’s no one she can completely trust. Not her grandfather, a powerful ambassador. Not her new friends, who all live on Embassy Row. Not Alexei, the Russian boy next door who is keeping an eye on Grace for reasons she neither likes nor understands.

Everybody wants Grace to put on a pretty dress and a pretty smile, blocking out all her unpretty thoughts. But they can’t control Grace–no more than Grace can control what she knows or what she needs to do.

Her past has come back to hunt her . . . and if she doesn’t stop it, Grace isn’t the only one who will get hurt. Because on Embassy Row, the countries of the world all stand like dominoes, and one wrong move can make them all fall down.

A little background – before they retired, my parents were diplomats. I grew up moving from country to country, and seeing firsthand life in embassies and the expat community. So when I saw Ally Carter’s All Fall Down I was intrigued. A book involving the Foreign Service? Cool! Except, as it turns out, not so cool.

It didn’t take more than a few pages for my excitement to turn to disbelief. Grace, our main character, has just moved to Adria, where her grandfather is the US ambassador. Where they live in the embassy. What? Ambassadors don’t live at the embassy. No one lives at the embassy. It would be like the CEO of a company living in his company’s office building. The closest you would come to someone living at the embassy is that sometimes the marine security guards will have quarters on embassy grounds.

The embassy building itself was supposedly “built by a spice baron in 1772 [and] became the US embassy at the end of World War I” (Carter 31). Unlikely. A building built in the 1700s would probably not have the amenities or space necessary for an embassy. Which is not to say that there are not embassies in buildings that are old. The US embassy is Paris is in a building from the 1700s, but they have had to do substantial work on it to make it function. However, an ambassador’s residence (because, again, ambassadors do not live at embassies) could easily be an old mansion! The ambassador’s residence in Rome comes to mind. Carter tries to pass off the old embassy by claiming Adria is old fashioned and that “most modern embassies are more like fortresses – barbed wire and cement blocks, born out of the war on terror. But not in Adria” (31).

For reference, here is the US embassy in Beijing, clearly a fortress with barbed wire and cement blocks.

us embassy beijing

True, this photo doesn’t show the large security wall around the embassy compound, but the building is hardly a cement block fortress. Speaking of walls, in All Fall Down, Grace supposedly climbed the wall around the embassy as a child and fell into the Canadian embassy grounds. Why would an embassy even bother with a wall if it provides so little security that a child can easily climb over it? On the same note, Grace is in her new room sleeping when she is awoken by Noah, an Israeli/ Brazilian boy. Who is in her room. While she is sleeping. At the secure embassy where she supposedly lives. Carter attempts to explain this by suggesting that Noah is buddies with the marine stationed at the front gate. It’s absurd that a marine would jeopardize his position and the safety of the embassy by letting someone randomly wander in, regardless of whether the marine was friends with this person or not. Even if Noah were allowed into the embassy (for which he would have to get permission), he would not be allowed to go in unsupervised.

Noah also supposedly lives in an embassy. The Israeli one, but on the weekends he lives at the Brazilian one because his parents don’t get along. People don’t live in embassies.

“There are lots of other, smaller embassies and consulates within the city” (Carter 34). Nope. If it’s in the capitol city it’s an embassy. If it’s in another city in the country then it’s a consulate. You don’t have embassies and consulates in the same city, they are not interchangeable words/ things.

Let’s move on to Grace’s grandfather the ambassador. “You’re here because your grandfather has worked in Adria for nearly half a century. He married a woman from here. He raised his family here. This was your mother’s home, Grace” (Carter 8). US foreign service officers do not get to live in countries for “nearly half a century”. You get about three years. Maybe a couple more if there are special circumstances. That’s it.  It’s like being in the army, it’s a big part of the job that you move frequently. It’s unclear how long Grace’s grandfather has been ambassador, but going by the frequent mentions of Grace staying at the embassy as a child and her mother growing up there (“I can’t deny that I’ve spent more of my life on Embassy Row than any other place – that maybe it wasn’t just my mother’s childhood home” (Carter 83)), it’s been a long time. Being an ambassador is a limited position. You’re in for roughly three years. The longest you could be in the position would be eight years, and that would if you were appointed by the president and he decided to keep you in post for his entire two terms. Grace’s grandfather tells a story in which he describes himself as “a junior State Department employee” (Carter 89). This suggests that Grace’s grandfather is a career diplomat, not a political appointee, so he would get about three years in the ambassador role. The idea that Grace’s grandfather has been ambassador so long that Grace’ mother grew up at the embassy is pure fantasy.

Grace’s grandfather entertains Grace with a story about when he first moved to Adria and was sent to tell the king of Adria why the president suddenly couldn’t attend a planned visit that day. “Instead of calling on the king himself, the ambassador at the embassy sends me [the grandfather], hat in hand, up to the palace to make our apologies” (Carter 90). Presidents have to cancel meetings all the time. It happens. It certainly would not be cause for an ambassador to go visit the king to explain why. Ambassadors and kings are busy people, and they have staff to handle this sort of thing. One of the ambassador’s secretaries would have called one of the king’s secretaries and explained that the president had to cancel. Even if we want to pretend that the ambassador wanted to be really polite and send someone in person, the king would hardly receive the messenger personally. The king has staff for that.

It would have been so much more fun to have been the daughter of diplomats in a fictional story. In stories, diplomats spend a lot of time in designer clothes at fancy parties where they mingle with the well to do. Grace, for instance, is going to attend a ball and Ms. Chancellor (whose role I was very unclear on. Is she the grandfather’s personal secretary? Why does she have so much time to spend on Grace and teaching her etiquette and other things?) brings in a bunch of designer clothes for Grace to try on. “She walks toward the racks of clothes that fill what is usually a formal living room. Now the furniture has been pushed aside. There are long rolling racks covered with dresses. Stacks and stacks of shoe boxes” (Carter 82). Diplomats have to buy all their own clothes. Even the ambassador. So if there are really that many clothes for Grace to try on then her grandfather must be absurdly wealthy to afford them all.

A teenager hacks into a State Department computer. Casual. And the Adrian palace facial-recognition program. Because why would governments spend any time creating secure computer networks?

I’m sure there was more, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish the book. Not everyone has time to research everything to make sure that every tiny detail in a story is accurate. I get that. However, Carter didn’t seem to do any research into the foreign service whatsoever. Even casual research would have revealed that people don’t live at embassies or that embassies are secure places that don’t just let people wander in and out. I was hoping that when I read this book I would see glimpses of what my life was like growing up overseas as the daughter of diplomats. Instead, I was just disappointed.

Has anyone else read All Fall Down? Is there something books always get wrong that bothers you?

Katie and Cat

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