Genre: Contemporary YA
When River’s girlfriend, Penny, dumps him on what should be a romantic pedal boat ride, River is at a loss. Over the past two years, Penny has become his whole world. He hasn’t bothered to make new friends or even check in regularly with his old ones, and he doesn’t have much else going on in his life. In Penny’s words:
You don’t reflect. You don’t think about things. You just follow along and do what you think you’re supposed to. You don’t event try to understand yourself and your issues…
River hasn’t even bothered to get his licence because Penny drives him everywhere (they live in L.A., and, apparently, ‘most kids who grow up in L.A. start dreaming of driving as soon as they’re old enough to dream’).
On the 10.2-mile walk home from the break-up, River stumbles upon a teen support group. He takes this as a Sign, and even though he doesn’t have a drug problem, or an eating disorder or a compulsion to shoplift like the other members of the group, he could use some support. So he invents a not-very-convincing marijuana addiction. When he starts to fall for Daphne, one of the girls in the group, he finds himself building lie upon lie when all he really wants is to tell the truth. However, River’s been lying to himself for longer than he realises, and maybe finding a new girlfriend is just another way of focusing on someone else when he should be taking some time for himself.
Tell Us Something True (Rock the Boat, Jul. 2016) is warm and witty coming-of-age story about love, lies and what happens when the two get tangled up.
I’ve read many a glowing review of Dana Reinhardt’s work, and I’m ashamed to admit that Tell Us Something True is the first of her books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. And it was a pleasure indeed.
I was giggling from the first page. Initially, River is such a yes-man, so completely comfortable with Penny—too comfortable to put any real effort into their relationship—and has such an ingrained sense of entitlement, you kinda want to give Penny a high-five for dumping him. Without her, he’s utterly helpless, and his attempts to win her back are so cringe-worthy you can’t help but laugh. Same goes for when all the lies he tells begin to unravel. You don’t feel bad because he brings his ill-fortune on himself. He’s the kind of guy who’s so absorbed in his relatively minor dramas, as to be blind to the much larger problems faced by those around him, and a big part of the story is about him recognising his privilege and gaining some much-needed perspective. However, I appreciated that he’s not just the cliche cis, white, upper-middle class dude without a clue. As the story progresses, the reader learns that River’s childhood wasn’t ideal and goes a long way to explaining why he’s so affected by a high school break-up and dead set on finding a new girlfriend.
I found this rather clever. In the early parts of the story, Reinhardt lets the reader imagine River as a neat stereotype and to enjoy a laugh at his expense. And we feel okay about it because he is uber-privileged and entitled and his problems seem relatively minor. But then she slowly begins to turn the tables. The reader starts to see that while River has a whole lot of advantages, it’s because of these advantages that he feels he’s not allowed to be upset or admit that he’s affected by what happened when he was younger. So he channels that emotion into his break-up, which people expect him to take badly. In this way, Reinhardt demonstrates that, while it’s important to recognise privilege, it’s equally important that we don’t use it to devalue people’s experiences. Bonus points to Reinhardt for managing to get the reader thinking about this without using a sledgehammer to drive home her point.
The other thing that had me fist pumping throughout Tell Us Something True is that Reinhardt rejects the ideas that love and happily ever after are inextricably linked, that love is the magic remedy to all life’s problems and having a crush on someone and being in love are one and the same. Reinhardt’s certainly not the first YA author to resist these ideas. Indeed, it seems to be something of a trend in this the so-called golden age of YA. In John Green’s Looking for Alaska, there’s that awful, heart-wrenching scene (that I still can’t read without misting up) when Pudge eventually realises that he never loved Alaska because he never really knew her, and in believing he loved her, he failed her as a friend. In Eleanor and Park Rainbow Rowell gives readers the most incredible love story, but also shows that love won’t magic away all the other problems in Eleanor’s life. It may not even survive them. Even Emery Lord’s When We Collided (which I found somewhat sappy and underwhelming) rejects the idea that love should be the ultimate goal. However, while Reinhardt may not be breaking new ground with her anti-love story, I was pleased to see her furthering the trend. Because when I was a teenager, the message was very different: prove yourself by completing the coming-of-age arc and be rewarded with the Object of Your Affections. Admittedly, I didn’t read a lot of YA as a teenager, but I did watch a lot of teen films, and the bulk of them championed this idea: Clueless, Can’t Hardly Wait, Ten Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, Never Been Kissed, Bring It On, etc. Even Mean Girls, which is one of my all-time favourite films—so fetch—and progressive on many levels, follows suit. Once Kady proves she’s no longer a ‘mean girl’ she’s rewarded with the title of Spring Fling Queen and a slow dance and a kiss from the boy of her dreams. Watching those films as a kid, it would have been easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if I didn’t get the guy, I was doing something wrong or that I hadn’t done enough to prove myself. While I don’t advocate eliminating these kinds of stories (they have other things to offer), I’m pleased that there’s an increasing number of authors challenging the status quo.
It’s an unwritten rule that contemporary YA should end hopefully, if not happily, ever after. But I often wish it would venture into darker territory before it got there, and if I have one criticism of Tell Us Something True, it’s that the plot is a tad predictable and safe. After reading the blurb, I felt I knew exactly where the story was going, and there weren’t many surprises. It’s a criticism that holds true for a lot of contemporary YA. Like every other novel in the genre that’s been released since Looking for Alaska, Tell Us Something True is being publicised as ‘for fans of John Green’. I can see the connection. Reinhardt’s prose is heightened and witty and clever; her characters and their relationships are complex and well-rounded; her story explores timely themes and issues without patronising the reader. But I never worried that something truly awful would befall one of the characters, or considered that some of them would not be okay in the end. In fact, the worst possible outcome for River is that he’ll be caught in a lie and lose his chance with Daphne, who he’s only known for a few months. Big whoop. I never feel that safe reading John Green. Indeed, the reason Looking for Alaska remains one of my favourite YA reads is that Green puts Pudge and his friends in a truly awful position. They mess up in smallish ways, the way most of us do, but the consequences are disproportionate and unforeseeable, and there’s no way to fix their mistakes. Instead, they have to accept what happened, own their part in it and find a way forwards. The other reason I love LFA is that, while Pudge could act to prevent the major crisis, he doesn’t, and Green makes it deliberately ambiguous as to whether his actions would have hold any weight in any case. Ultimately, his life is turned upside down in small part by his inaction, but mostly as a consequence of someone else’s actions and he’s left to deal with the consequences. Whereas, in Tell Us Something True (and plenty of other contemporary YA titles), all the key turning points are a direct result of the protagonist’s actions. It works fine in terms of the story, but it’s not particularly realistic, and it means River is the only character with real agency; everyone else is just reacting to him.
On the whole, though, Tell Us Something True is a smart and funny read, perfect for days when you need a little cheering up.
See Tell Us Something True on Goodreads and purchase through Booktopia, Book Depository and Amazon.
Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of Tell Us Something True in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up three critical issues and sixteen advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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