Oh, the ambivalence! Two books in a row where I’m not fond of the structure. Unlike Adult Onset, however, I actually did like The Truth About Alice. Jennifer Mathieu’s idea to use four viewpoint characters to essentially gossip to us about Alice Franklin is a good one. I wish that I had liked it more, but the characters didn’t really grow on me, and the ending is underwhelming.
Alice Franklin might or might not be a slut. But who cares, right? Well Healy “Stereotypical Conservative Small Town” Texas cares. Oh, and thanks to the rumour mill, Alice is on the hook for “causing” the car crash that claimed the life of Brandon, Healy quarterback. So she’s basically a pariah. Mathieu explores these events through four people involved in various ways: Elaine, who threw the party where Alice earned her ultimate slut title; Kelsie, Alice’s former best friend who throws her under the bus in a big way; Josh, Brandon’s best friend; and Kurt, super-smart and therefore largely outside of Healy High’s social hierarchy, but he has pined after Alice throughout high school and now he sees a chance to swoop in and be the friend she needs.
Mathieu takes pains to make each narrator’s voice distinct and believably adolescent in cadence and vocabulary. I’m no longer in the privileged position to comment on whether these voices ring true. I like the attempt. There are times, however, when this device gets in the way—Kelsie’s constant allusion to “That Really Awful Stuff” is an example. In attempting to explore the various niches and socialized behaviours of teenagers, Mathieu occasionally verges upon the uncanny valley of characterization: Elaine is too much the popular girl; Kelsie is too much the follower; Josh is too much the confused jock; Kurt is too much the awkward outsider, etc. This retreat into archetypes, while not necessarily bad, does make the book feel a little more obvious and heavy-handed to me—much like the not-so-subtle reference to The Scarlet Letter in one chapter.
This narrative of rumours and innuendo is powerful. It elevates The Truth About Alice beyond merely a story about Alice, because it is Elaine’s and Kelsie’s and Josh’s and Kurt’s story too. We learn about Elaine’s frustration with her mother’s Weight Watchers obsession and the pressures that have moulded her into the perfect pretty popular girl of Healy. Kelsie confesses to us, unburdening herself of all her insecurities and the truth behind what happened between her and Tommy Cray—That Really Awful Stuff, which if you’re not brain dead, you’ll figure out long before she spills the beans. Josh is interesting: at first he simply appears to be your average bro-jock (or is it jock-bro?). Then, as he recounts his memories with Brandon, we see other facets of Josh. Compared to these three, Kurt’s development is a little disappointing, just because it’s so on-the-nose for his archetype: he’s that nerd with a heart of gold who has to learn that real-life Alice isn’t as perfect as his fantasy Alice, but hey, that’s OK. He’s not quite as interesting as the other three. Taken all together, though, these narrators allow Mathieu to explore many more ramifications of gossip and small-town mentalities.
I don’t like that this structure by its very nature diminishes Alice’s own role in her story. We don’t really get to meet Alice until she has the final word, which means the impact of those words isn’t very powerful. While Alice’s chapter serves to resolve the story, it can really only offer us trite concluding remarks, because we don’t know the real Alice well enough.
And this is the truth about The Truth About Alice: for all the things it does right, I’m not sure it does any one thing better than any of the innumerable other novels that talk about these issues. We’ve seen into the minds of the popular and pseudo-popular girls time and again; we’ve deconstructed the jock-bro and the golden nerd and the small town. The book’s ending doesn’t offer any new insights, and it is eminently predictable.
So I guess I’m totally on board with Mathieu’s message, even if I’m not completely won over by the medium. I like that it’s only 200 pages; it manages to cover a lot of ground in that time—I just wish more of it were new ground. As it is, The Truth About Alice is a good look at slut-shaming and the policing of gender roles in and by teenagers, but it hasn’t wowed me like some other entries in this sub-genre.