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The Thing about the Truth

The Thing About the Truth - Lauren Barnholdt Cover Story:As Kelsey approached, Isaac held his arms open. She was walking slowly, slightly unsteady on her non-designer heels and swinging a (bought on consignment) Kate Spade purse in her left hand. A gentle breeze ruffled her long blonde hair – wait, wasn’t her hair brown? - around her shoulders. Isaac began to smile, anticipating the warmth of her lean body in his arms. He briefly wondered whether he should check that the coast was clear and Marina Ruiz wasn’t going to make one of her patented bat-shit crazy appearances (because all hot girls are crazy, amiright?), and start stirring up trouble again. The tight black shirt and stiletto boots should have been a tip off. Girls who wear clothes like that are obviously unbalanced stalkers. But who could blame her, really. He was pretty irresistible. He was a senator’s son! He drove a. BLACK. BMW. He’d become accustomed to girls flinging themselves in this path, like so many moths to a flame. (Because he was hot, get it?!) Kelsey didn’t say anything, she just staggered forward, glass-eyed, apparently as eager as he was to lose herself in a passionate tangle of arms and mouths. But at the last moment she turned her head slightly so that his kiss glanced off her cheek. Isaac didn’t see it but she was raising her left arm behind him, hefting the weight of the brick in her Kate Spade purse, gathering the momentum required to bash his skull in. As she did so she was opening her mouth, and to a casual observer it might have appeared that she was whispering his name into his ear tenderly. They wouldn’t have heard her throaty rasp as she voiced the only word she could: ”Brraaaaaaaaaiiinnnssss” Well, that’s how I think it should have gone. The thing about The Thing About the Truth is that it feels like Lauren Barnholdt is just phoning it in. It follows the Barnholdt “he-said-she-said-past-and-present” formula, but ultimately there’s no real heft to this story. The plot essentially hinges on a lie; what happens one character conceals a truth from another. But the characters’ motivations and the issues raised are so superficially explored that it all feels a bit anti-climactic at the big reveal. I read this book and all I got was a “huh?” to show for it. This is a flimsy contemporary romance that relies too heavily on tired clichés and stereotypical characters to extract any real investment from the reader. All the usual suspects are wheeled out: the hot rich boy, the guarded heroine nursing a previous heartbreak, the passive-aggressive mean girl, and the “crazy” hot (more on this later) villainess. Isaac and Kelsey, both kicked out of their previous private schools, find themselves enrolled in a public high school (the horror!). Determined to redeem her scholastic reputation and get into a good college, Kelsey comes up with the idea of forming an extracurricular club. Determined to pursue a burgeoning attraction to Kelsey by annoying her (as you do), Isaac muscles in on her plans and ends up co-organiser of “Face It Down Day”, an event for private and public students to talk through their differences and foster communication. The problem is, Kelsey’s ex-boyfriend and ex-but-possibly-reinstated best friend attend the private school. Can Kelsey move on in a healthy relationship with Isaac while attempting to conceal the truth about her past? Ultimately, I didn’t care. Neither of these characters elicited much of a sympathetic response from me, because Isaac was a petulant and entitled jerk and Kelsey’s backstory felt perfunctory and thinly developed. The lie that ostensibly results in Face It Down Day devolving into punching and hair-pulling just didn’t seem to warrant the outcome. I expected this part of the story to be much more substantial, and for the characters’ reasons for their reactions to be better developed. This was not the case. To make this story work, the characters – including the supporting cast – needed to feel authentic, with believable motivations. They didn’t. Many of the secondary characters seem to exist purely as window dressing for the angst between Isaac and Kelsey. We’re presented with difficult relationships with fathers, a best friend who seems to act out of resentment, but none of the reasons for these situations are particularly well explored. They exist purely to complicate the story, and readers are given no real insight into their motives. And this brings me to an issue that’s been playing on my mind a lot since reading The Thing About the Truth: authentic voice and the perpetuation of stereotypes. And while I feel this involves many of the characters, I want to talk about it specifically as it pertains to Marina Ruiz. Marina’s sole purpose in this novel is to create conflict, to antagonise the main characters. When we first meet her, we’re made well aware of the fact that she dresses to emphasise her body, that she’s assertive and flirtatious. She’s referred to as “skanky” by Kelsey. Isaac makes ongoing comments about Marina’s hotness, and later the fact that she’s crazy and a stalker. After drunkenly kissing her he avoids her, at pains to discourage her from pursing him. I assume we are meant to find Isaac’s snide commentary humorous. Here’s one of his hilarious observations: That chick is certifiably out of her fucking tree. It’s to be expected, really, because she’s so hot. All hot chicks are crazy. It’s almost like they’ve been able to get away with being insane because they’re so good-looking. No one care that they’re completely crazy, because they’re nice to look. Isn’t he delightful? Quite likely Isaac’s voice is accurately rendered and Barnholdt is realistically portraying the casual sexism and judgement of high school. But frankly, it feels lazy. Marina is a flat, one-note character with no development beyond her appearance and demeanour being used as shorthand for the fact that she’s the villain. There is a blatant dichotomy between Marina and Kelsey that makes me uncomfortable, and there’s absolutely no discussion of why pigeonholing female characters this way is damaging. No, I don’t expect Barnholdt to moralize on this, but I do expect more from authors than relying on an offensive cliché to progress the plot. When in doubt, send in the crazy chick? Where’s the line between authentically presenting the high school experience complete with double standards, and propagating the idea that the girl in the low-cut top is obviously a hysterical bitch who probably makes out with everyone? No thanks. This is increasingly my problem with Barnholdt’s novels, in that the characters feel typecast, like something out of a bad 90s teen movie. The fact that this entire book essentially hinges on some really ridiculous characterisation tipped me over the edge. There’s potential here, but Barnholdt barely even scratches the surface. * * * * *The only humorous thing about this "love story" is the zombie-face cover. Ugh.* * * *Awkward covers FTW!