The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu
Published: June 2, 2014, Roaring Brook Press
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
I really can’t handle talking about this for too long because it just hurts too much, but I do want to say that there is one thing I’ve learned about people: they don’t get that mean and nasty overnight. If you give people enough time, eventually they’ll do the most heartbreaking stuff in the world.
The Truth About Alice may be a little book, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in its unflinching portrayal of the stereotypes that almost seem to be an inherent part of the American high school experience. It’s a tough book to read at times and the characters are not incredibly sympathetic, but it has this enthralling, consuming quality about it nonetheless.
In the small town of Healy, it’s nearly impossible to keep things secret. Boredom is ever present and rumors spread quickly. The latest rumor is that at a party over the summer before her junior year, Alice Franklin slept with two guys, one right after the other. It’s a lie, but one that sticks with the people of Healy.
By itself, the rumor inspires some interest and derision. The greater problem, however, is what happens after that rumor spreads: it spawns many new rumors and speculation that simply aren’t true. In the slightest. Such as the fact that Alice later texted one of the guys she slept with while he was driving and caused him to get in a fatal crash. But no one seems at all curious in questioning the veracity of those claims. Through the eyes of four teens who have some degree of familiarity with Alice, readers witness her transformation from a pretty, popular girl into a social pariah.
It is an interesting authorial choice that Mathieu made to have Alice, the ostensible subject of this novel, if not the protagonist, never receive her own voice. But perhaps that’s the point here: the story uses the rumors about Alice as a springboard to a larger examination of students of Healy High (and of a greater teenage culture).
Alice does literally nothing to incur the wrath of her fellow students (and town’s adults). It’s heartbreaking to watch everyone turn their backs on her. Heartbreaking, but not quite to the degree it would have been had readers actually been able to access Alice’s perspective. How does Alice truly feel about this? What’s going on in her head? There’s an intentional bit of distance here, which Mathieu seems to use in order to focus on four other teens and their interpretations of Alice’s tribulations instead.
Elaine is the resident popular girl. Kelsie has fringe popularity and was Alice’s best friend prior to the incident. Josh is a football jock and his best friend was Brandon, the guy Alice slept with and is supposedly the cause his fatal accident. The final main perspective is told through the eyes of Kurt, the boy so academically advanced that he almost embraces the fact that the people at Healy High he feels closest to are his teachers. Each of them may fit into specific labels quite easily, but they are also so much more than the sum of their supposed characteristics.
Through these four perspectives, Mathieu attempts to portray many of the stereotypes typically found within high school (and beyond). In some ways, she succeeds spectacularly. On the other hand, the four perspectives feel a bit contrived at times. Mathieu is only giving readers four perspectives, and yet through these four characters we’re practically given the whole gamut of teen experiences: body/weight issues, sexuality and unintended consequences, friendships, popularity games, relationships, and much, much more. The four narrators (and Alice) do offer a wide variety of perspectives, which I appreciated, but I did not quite believe how at times they seem symbolic of the entire American teen population. It’s just too much ground to cover in such a small book.
Alice herself isn’t as memorable a character as I would have hoped. Instead, Elaine and Kelsie, Josh and Kurt, are the characters with greater staying power. They’ll be the ones that readers relate to. The chances of being an Alice are probably pretty slim for most teens, but the possibility of being an Elaine, a Kelsie, a Josh, or a Kurt, suffering from their insecurities and challenges, is much greater. While none of them can exactly be considered as a role model, at least they give faces to some various perspectives of young adulthood.
The Truth About Alice is a quick read, and I’m not quite sure how much staying power it will have with its readers. Some will be more affected by Alice’s story (and the story of her peers), of course, but I imagine much of the story will leave me. There are so many conflicts occurring within a short span of pages that it’s hard to keep them all straight. But it’s an earnest story and its messages are important ones for readers of any age, not just teens.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Disclaimer: I received this review copy from Netgalley on behalf of the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion.