Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Truth According to Us—Annie Barrows


My entry, luckily, was randomly selected through Random House's Read It Forward. I think it was when they had the game where you find the hidden beach balls strewn across their site, and each beach ball represented one of eight "beach reads." It was a fun game, AND I won a book! Win-win!

In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck is forced by her father to take a job with the Federal Writers' Project, and is assigned to a small town in West Virginia to write their town history. She boards with a zany family called the Romeyn's; in fact, the story is narrated by Willa Romeyn, who is the oldest daughter of the family at twelve. (We get letters and viewpoints from other characters from the third person, but when in the first person, we're hearing from Willa.) Before Layla arrives, Willa is living happily with her sister, Bird; her father, Felix; her aunt Jottie; and her twin aunts, Mae and Minerva. In this summer, Willa is starting to realize how the other people in town view her family, and the complicated family history that lies beneath the surface. Layla also gives us alternate insight into the background of the relationships of everybody in this very small town, and history about the Romeyns that Willa's not party to.

[Coincidentally enough, the very first book that I added to my "Want to Read" bookshelf on Goodreads as soon as I joined was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (which I still haven't read).]

This slice-of-life book was just what I needed at the time that I read it. The story was much more about the characters and relationships than anything else, which is sometimes so refreshing to read. No need to create a completely different world with different mechanisms and worldbuilding; there are plenty of opportunities to create good stories out of the materials that are already present in our world. The thing that makes these kinds of books so powerful, to me, is that you feel so much more invested in these people as a result. I felt Jottie's pain, and just wanted her to once be able to catch a break; I raised my eyebrows at Felix's behavior, and his lack of attentiveness to daughters who clearly worship him; I understood Layla and her sheltered existence, who ultimately comes to understand an experience entirely foreign to her before her arrival in Macedonia.

The structure of the book—with traditional chapters, as well as chapters dedicated to letters written—was very conducive to gradually uncovering this family secret that has been looming for over a decade, as well as introducing us more to characters like Layla, who served most as a way to get information that we would never have gotten from Willa. Willa, as the ostensible narrator of the piece, provided us with the viewpoint of a burgeoning citizen and family member, recently attuned to the idea that perhaps there are things about her family that she does not know—an especially irksome situation for Willa, considering the rest of the town seems to know everything she does not. While she's been a member of the community her whole life, she's just now discovering that there may be more to it than she realized, and also starts asking the "big questions" of life. Layla as the outsider provides us with a fresh, and somewhat spoiled perspective of this incredibly small, working-class town. Having never struggled for anything in her life as a senator's daughter, and though she starts out as a bit of a whiner, Layla takes on the mantle of town historian with a sense of pride, determined to write the truth (albeit slightly exaggerated at points) rather than the puff piece that the town council would prefer. Layla reminded me a bit of Anne Shirley: overdramatic and at times naive, but ultimately well-meaning, well-intentioned, and earnest.

Jottie rounds out the trio of narrators, as the matriarch of the Romeyn family. Robbed as a young girl of the boy that she loved (Vause Hamilton), she must also live with the tension between her brother Felix, who was Vause's best friend. In a cycle of punishing each other for transgressions real and imagined, but mostly related to unspoken feelings about Vause's death, Jottie and Felix have an easy relationship on the surface, with tension not far beneath. Jottie represents for the audience the long-time resident of Macedonia, knower of many secrets, with not only the family history, but also the experience and the connections (good or bad) to all of the residents. She can't seem to escape the spector of Vause Hamilton, and the perceptions surrounding the whole ordeal from the townspeople. Although I'm sure she gets much fulfillment out of raising her nieces, she seems stuck. Who hasn't felt that way? Just another way that the Romeyn family is eminently relatable, despite the fact that their story takes place over seven decades ago.

Although I sometimes consider it a cop out (*cough*Harry Potter*cough*), I enjoyed the epilogue and thought it was lovely. It made it easier to say goodbye to this family that I had grown with for five hundred pages.

There are some great truths about relationships in general in this book. At one point, Jottie is chatting with Willa about love and her particular interests, and Willa remarks that she's just looking for "someone who makes everything funny and interesting, even doing nothing." Jottie nods and replies, "Some people can just stand in an empty room and make it seem like the center of the world." What a beautiful sentiment. Who isn't looking for that? It's with poignant and simple moments like these that The Truth According to Us shines brightest.