I really enjoyed reading Guernsey, but I haven’t always enjoyed follow up novels from authors who’ve penned runaway “book club” bestsellers. (For example: Ape House, Bellman & Black, Great House.) But if I liked the popular novel, I’m usually willing to give the follow up a chance.
The Truth According to Us gets off to a quick start, but the first few chapters left me a bit uncertain. The first chapter is a whirlwind: a crash course in the history of the fictional town the story is set in, a glimpse at the characters as they’re watching a parade, and hints about mysteries that are set to unfold. Then it jumps into the second chapter comprised of heated letters flying back and forth between all sorts of people not yet introduced, which made me a little wary that she was going to fall back too hard on the “novel in letters” approach used in Guernsey.
But then by chapter 3 the story settles down comfortably (with letters interspersed but used more sparingly), and we meet our three main characters / heroines / narrators:
- Jottie Romeyn: a middle aged woman managing the household of her once prominent small town family and bringing up her brother’s children.
- Her 12 year old niece, Willa Romeyn, who is sick of adults not telling her the full story about things and sets out to snoop around herself.
- Their new boarder: Layla Beck, a debutant daughter of a US Senator cast out of her family home & money and forced to get a job through the family’s connections in the WPA program after her refusal to marry a twerpy gentleman picked out by her father.
It’s set in the fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia towards the end of the Great Depression. The action unfolds as Layla sets out on her assignment to write a history book about the town, and gets intertwined both with the truths / legends / gossip of the town history and the Romeyn household members themselves, in particular Jottie’s brother Felix (Willa’s father). Annie takes all three women through a transformational summer and mixes in mystery and romance.
I enjoyed immersing myself in the hot, humid, powder keg of a West Virginia summer of 1938 thanks to the well developed, multi-dimensional characters and Annie Barrow’s skilled writing style. It falls short of being a complete home run for me because of a combination of a few small things: it could have done with a tighter edit, Willa, the 12 year old main narrator, was a bit too “wise beyond her years” to be entirely believable (although it didn’t stop me from adoring her), and some of the events contributing to the “history / truth is subjective” theme felt a little bit forced. But those are nit-picky complaints: this will likely not end up being one of my favorite books of the year, but I really enjoyed reading it.
Here are a few of my favorite passages:
“A mysterious stranger was liable to change everything, and that was a thrilling thought.” (Chapter 4)
“I tried to look innocent but not idiotic, which is uphill work.” (Chapter 13)
“Father didn’t go to church. According to Jottie, Father and Reverend Dews had discussed it, and Father had promised to go to church every day of the year in 1952, so Reverend Dews said it was all right if he didn’t go until then. We knew better than that. Father liked to sleep late on Sundays.” (Chapter 17)
“I think I knew even then that I was making a choice, but in a way I was choosing myself, because if I had waited one more second, I would have stopped being who I was.” (Chapter 47)
It’s not a perfect novel, but The Truth According to Us is a great beach read or summer travel book for those of us who like to satisfy their historical fiction sweet tooth during the hot summer months.
(The main image for this post is from the Library of Congress on Flickr. It’s from a different state and year, but it’s the same era that this novel was set, and in my imagination the fictional sesquicentennial celebrations in Macedonia described in the novel looked similar to the festive town fair featured in this photo.)
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Dial Press for the opportunity to read & review this book!