…there is one thing I’ve learned about people: they don’t get that mean and nasty overnight. It’s not human nature.
If you give people enough time, eventually they’ll do the most heartbreaking stuff in the world.
The things is, I’ve read this storyline a couple of times elsewhere. I’ve watched the teen flick and CW series portraying this issue with every possible embellishment and spin to repurpose the shock value of the underlying tyrannical machinery of high school politics and bullying into something fresh or fresh-like. To a certain degree, this still had the message powerfully delivered, a story that still deserves to be told and all that jazz but where this book’s strength lay, for me, was in effectively capturing the complexity of the personalities surviving and participating in that strange hyperreality of fictional high schools, or more exactly, small town high schools.
The Truth About Alice is relayed through the alternating perspectives of five personalities directly and indirectly associated with the widely renowned slut of the small town of Haley Texas, Alice of the Raspberry Lips Franklin. Alice used to belong in the upper middle echelons of the high school caste system and this chronicled her gradual slide down that strata, starting with a malicious rumor involving 2 boys from Haley High Royalty and ending with the death of one of them, Brandon Fitzsimmons, the star quarterback. This went beyond theRashomon route of the different versions of the truth and instead revealed the intricate depth and texture of each character that figured into the reconstruction of Alice Franklin:Elaine the resident queen bee and Brandon’s scorned girlfriend; Kelsie Alice’s deserting best friend; Josh Brandon’s best friend blaming Alice for the accident; Kurt Haley High’s nerdy loner (or lonery nerd); and right at the very end, Aliceherself.
Much like Speechless and Some Girls Are, this book did an impressive job in delivering toeing the line between PSA and edgy. The insights on small-town archetypes and patterns was so well-explored in its minutiae (I LOVED Elaine’s insights on Manhattan!) that the town of Haley figures as much as the sixth character giving its own perspective of the story.
The dialogue and the narrative was sharp and the palpable respect Matthieu gave each character, making them fully-formed and multi-dimensional was impressive in that I was simultaneously hating and understanding them at any given point. But while I thought Elaine and Kurt were incredibly well-constructed, it is in Josh and Kelsie that makes this novel truly stand out. I think it requires a subtle dash of genius in creating the unresolved and unvoiced conflict in someone like Josh that makes you wonder what becomes of him in the after, but there’s a vat-full of brilliance in crafting a character as intricate as Kelsie.
It’s like when we read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ in seventh grade, and I had the sneaking suspicion that I would have been a Nazi back then because I wouldn’t have had the guts to be anything else. Because I would have been too scared to not go along with the majority. Like, I would have been a passive sort of Nazi, but I still would have been a Nazi.
There’s a level of ruthless survivalist in that girl that leaves me in awe. Make no mistake, I hated Kelsie right to the very end, but I’m also imagining Haley High’s 10-year high school reunion will not be too far from that of Romy and Michele’s and Kelsie will hopefully end up as Jeneane Garofalo. Probably owning the only drug company manufacturing suicide pills in the post-apocalyptic, nuked out world.
But the self-discovery, coming-of-age YA book in the context of Horrid High School Hell is one that I find gradually loses its impact on me upon second and third exposure. Because there’s realistic fiction real and then there’s reality real. There’s also internet real but that’s another discussion for another book. This hyperrealistic depiction of archaic notions in high school is not really a point of annoyance for me but it makes it difficult for me to reconcile this as “realistic contemporary fiction”. Because in my experience with reality, the quarterback and the prettiest girl in school hardly occupies the top of the high school caste system. Though in the context of small-town dynamics, I suppose what this was selling could also work.
I did have a question that went unexplored about the Kurt-Alice relationship towards the end when Kurt reveals to Alice that he knew all the while that Brandon was lying about what he told the school. Because I wanted Alice to ask him if he would have treated her differently, still helped her if he didn’t know that truth and had nothing but the rumours to go with. I love that without the benefit of an epilogue, I can imagine the kind of life these characters will have down the line but I wish that this could have resolved that one little question so it would stop niggling in my thoughts until now.
Review Copy courtesy of the publishers. Quotes were taken from uncorrected proof and may not appear in the final edition.