Author: Jennifer Mathieu
Genre: young adult, contemporary
Published: expected June 3 2014
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Everyone has a lot to say about Alice Franklin, and it’s stopped mattering whether it’s true. The rumors started at a party when Alice supposedly had sex with two guys in one night. When school starts everyone almost forgets about Alice until one of those guys, super-popular Brandon, dies in a car wreck that was allegedly all Alice’s fault. Now the only friend she has is a boy who may be the only other person who knows the truth, but is too afraid to admit it. Told from the perspectives of popular girl Elaine, football star Josh, former outcast Kelsie, and shy genius Kurt, we see how everyone has a motive to bring – and keep – Alice down.
The Rashomon effect is a term that has been used by scholars, journalists and film critics to refer to contradictory interpretations of the same events by different persons, a problem that arises in the process of uncovering truth. The phrase derives from the movie Rashomon, where four witnesses' accounts of a rape and murder are all different. - Wikipedia
Because of the nature of The Truth About Alice, it’s hard to review with any specificity. I want you to learn the truth for yourself. It’s realistic fiction, yes, but there’s an element of mystery that unravels over the duration. Especially in the beginning, the book makes good use of the Rashomon effect as four students at Healy High tell us extremely unreliable and biased accounts of the party where Alice Franklin slept with two guys.
I will say, I described the book as “Rashomon with rape, drunk driving, and betrayal” at the halfway point, but like the characters, I too was jumping to conclusions. There’s some dubious consent, especially in a flashback involving statutory, that does not sit right at. all. (I got Dazed and Confused vibes from Tommy. You know, “I keep getting older, but they say the saaaame age.”) but it’s not what I feared. The book is much more about the power of rumors and lies than it is about coercion.
One of the things that stands out to me is how badly all the adults fail not only Alice, but all of the children. Why didn’t Brandon’s mother know he was drinking and driving? Why did Josh’s mom spread baseless rumors about a sixteen year old she barely knew? Why didn’t the teachers clean off the “Slut Stall”? Unlike a lot of YA stories where I’m left wondering, “where are the parents?”, because of poor plotting, here I know precisely where they are: engaging in the same toxic, abusive behavior as their children. We have to learn it somewhere, after all.
With a strong, emotionally devastating opening, the end is a bit saccharine for my tastes. I’m happy the character got to a better place, but it almost felt validating of the original lie. “It’ll all blow over in a week or two.” While it took closer to a year...yeah, it kind of did. Friendships were ruined, and at least two characters will probably carry guilt for a long time, but a really tragic end might have driven the point home harder. (Of course, then I might be complaining that we crossed into after school special territory. I only review for a reason.)
I like the writing a lot. One of the stand out scenes is a flashback between Brandon and Kurt which gave a lot of nuance to a standard jock character, without resorting to “oh poor me, everyone loves me and it’s hard,” cliches. There’s also a good deconstruction of the “dream girl” trope as Kurt gets to know Alice and realizes there’s a difference between “Fantasy Alice” and “Real Alice”, (and finds he prefers the one with a crooked tooth and messy pizza eating.)
The four voices are distinct and felt like real teenagers. I never needed to refer back to whose chapter I was reading, even when I put the book down for a stretch. I like that while everyone got some background on what made them into the kind of people who would lie, slander, and abuse, their behavior is never excused. Elaine could have blamed her bitchy personality on her diet-obsessed mother, but instead her last chapter showed growth and understanding that some things are unforgivable. Josh could have been played off as closeted and jealous, but the subtlety of his feelings kept me thinking and made for a richer reading experience.
In all, The Truth About Alice is a powerful, moving debut that I’m very happy to have read. While I feel the first half is stronger than the last, well written, fleshed-out characters and a fascinating study on mob mentality make this impossible not to recommend.