An interesting, timely debut novel
After a college party, two boys drive a girl home: drunk and passed out in the back seat. Rumours spread about what they did to her, but later they’ll tell the police a different version of events. Alice will never remember what truly happened. Her fracture runs deep, hidden beneath cleverness and wry humour. Nick — a sensitive, misguided boy who stood by — will never forget.
That’s just the beginning of this extraordinary journey into memory, fear and self-portrayal. Through university applications, a terrifying abusive relationship, a fateful reckoning with addiction and a final mind-bending twist, Alice and Nick will take on different roles to each other — some real, some invented — until finally, brought face to face once again, the secret of that night is revealed.
Startlingly relevant and enthralling in its brilliance, True Story is by turns a campus novel, psychological thriller, horror story and crime noir, each narrative frame stripping away the fictions we tell about women, men and the very nature of truth.
Kate Reed Petty’s debut had quite the buzz when review copies first started circulating. It’s timely mystery about the events of a fateful night during high school, and how it has changed the lives of those involved and caught on the edge. Told through a variety of styles, it’s an interesting examination of how we frame our own stories, who has the right to tell certain stories, and how they shape our lives.
True Story asks readers to consider a number of questions about our stories: Whose story gets to be told? Who gets to say what is the truth? Who gets to tell our story? What if the story we’ve told ourselves, or others have told us, is not true? How do we make amends? Petty addresses each of these in interesting and original ways (at least, I’ve never read a novel that takes all of these stylistic and narrative approaches and mashes them together). There’s a good deal of unreliability in each narrator — especially once you arrive at the ending and there’s a bit of a Russian doll thing going on, which didn’t land for me in quite the way I think the author intended.
I don’t think the novel is meant to provide easy answers, and we’re left to question our assumptions and feelings about each of the characters in turn: we get to see their agendas through their own and others’ eyes, their contradictions, weaknesses, blindspots, and so forth. It’s quite well done. When I was about 3/4 in, I wasn’t sure what Petty was trying to do with the novel, or where she was going to take it next. I wasn’t sure who the author thought was at fault, either. There are times when the novel could be read as a critique of modern day feminism and activism surrounding #MeToo, or the willingness of some to accept the worst and define themselves in unhealthy ways. There’s a lot of murk in the novel, in other words, and some of the decisions made in relation to the plot were… unusual. This murkiness made it difficult to connect with all of the characters, and despite the material and subjects covered, it felt a little more shallow than I expected. [I’m avoiding spoilers, so sorry about the vagueness.]
The novel certainly has its ups-and-downs. There are plenty of interesting observations and bits of characterizations. (Petty perfectly, critically, and amusingly captures the oft-shallow concerns of the teenage male/jock, for example.) How successful the various devices and gimmicks are will depend on how well you get on with them. There are quite a few different approaches deployed over the course of the novel — they’re all interesting, and ones that I’ve enjoyed in other novels by other authors. However, some of them outlast their welcome, and come to feel more gimmicky than clever or “enthralling in its brilliance”. (True Story has overly effusive back cover copy, which in my opinion is a very risky move and often fails to deliver.)
There’s no question that Petty is an good writer. The author’s prose is excellent, and the various different styles and voices used to tell the story are distinctive and well executed. As mentioned, however, some of them overstayed their welcome, and there were a few moments when my attention flagged and interested dipped. For example, the college admission essay — while an intriguing device to show the evolution of Alice’s comfort with her own experiences, how she copes and how she sees herself, it went on for longer than was necessary and/or interesting. Similarly, Nick’s weekend bender was a perfect example of a drunken protagonist losing it — unfortunately, a narrative style/trope that doesn’t work for me. (Novels like Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero have unfortunately never really worked for me.) There wasn’t enough depth, in my opinion, to make me fully invested in any of these characters’ fates — yes, there is sympathy, but after certain revelations one feels conflicted about who is the real villain. And the ending just sees the novel fizzle out. I understand that this is the point — especially that tidy endings are never guaranteed in real life, and catharsis is not always forthcoming — but it casts so much doubt over everything, that I think it undermines its (possible) message. Nevertheless, I kept reading despite these flaws and issues. To me, it’s a testament to Petty’s writing — I’ve become far more comfortable with jettisoning novels that don’t work for me, but I didn’t toss this one.
Definitely an author to watch, and I am certainly interested to see what Petty writes next. This debut, while flawed in strange ways, is certainly worth checking out if you’re looking for something different.