Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Tales of innocence and experience: Annie Barrows' The Truth According to Us

Every family has hidden stories in its past. Tales of love and togetherness, others of disappointment, betrayal, even tragedy. Posed black-and-white photos can only hint at the day-to-day specifics of our forebears' lives. The only way to know the truth is if you were there.

But, as suggested by Annie Barrows’ (co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) first standalone novel for adults, sometimes even that isn’t enough. As one wise character notes early on, “All of us see a story according to our own lights.” Sifting through remembrances, anecdotes, and other evidence to discover what really happened can be tough, painful work.

Perceptive and engrossing, and with a host of characters you’ll regret having to leave after it's over, the appropriately-named The Truth According to Us has a trio of threads that address this issue. One takes a fairly light tone while the others are more serious and progressively more suspenseful, and they all overlap and intertwine.

The story opens during the stifling summer of 1938. Cut off financially by her parents after rejecting a blue-blooded but stuffy suitor, Layla Beck gets assigned to write the history of Macedonia, West Virginia as part of the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. Sharply intelligent but privileged, she isn’t used to a regular job. (As her field supervisor who happens to be her uncle writes to a colleague, “When she came down for her interview, I was pleasantly surprised to discover she had heard there was a depression.”) Layla also isn’t thrilled about possibly spending the summer in an impoverished backwater full of “toothless old hicks.”

The Romeyns, the family she boards with, have come down in society. Their late patriarch used to run the local hosiery factory, but a mysterious fire 18 years ago changed everything. Fortunately for Layla, the Romeyns’ home is cleanly appointed, and they themselves have their own quirky charms, especially Felix, a “terribly attractive” divorced father of two. As Layla interviews descendants of Macedonia’s “first families” for her book (and gets closer to Felix), she has to decide which “facts” to believe, both about the town’s past and her would-be lover.

Meanwhile, twelve-year-old Willa Romeyn, Felix’s elder daughter, gets curious about her father’s frequent absences. Is he really a chemical salesman, or maybe something more nefarious? Here Barrows, a prolific children’s author, demonstrates her familiarity with writing from a not-quite-adolescent’s viewpoint. Willa’s got some Harriet the Spy in her, narrating her sections in a voice that’s observant and funny, if almost too precocious in places. It’s also gratifying to see the town librarian encourage Willa’s book habit.

Yet it’s Willa’s Aunt Jottie, who essentially raises her and her strong-willed sister Bird, whose backstory is the most affecting. An attractive spinster of 35, Jottie's hopes for romance were stifled years back, in an incident she can’t quite get over or fully comprehend. While she’s grown accustomed to her sedate life, Jottie will do anything – joining the dull local ladies’ society included – to keep her family respectable and ensure Willa and Bird don’t grow up too quickly.

Their family home contains a compelling mix of innocence and experience, but the former can’t last forever. People's stories converge, revelations unfold, and the repercussions shake everyone up. The muggy Southern summer is evoked to perfection, with regular afternoon naps and doses of iced-tea, and the equally sizzling family dynamics, with Layla as the unsuspecting catalyst, drive the plot onward. As she gossips in a letter to a friend, Macedonia is “a small town that looks like any small town, with wide streets, old elms, white houses, and a tattered, dead-quiet town square – all seething with white-hot passion and Greek tragedy.”

However, as Jottie remarks with equal truth in one poignant section, small town life just doesn’t change much over the years. This feeling of “sameness,” as she puts it, can provide both frustration and comfort. This is  one of many ways the novel gives off the whiff of real life. Macedonia’s residents feel as tangible as one’s own family, and it’s in its honest depiction of people’s capacity for love, protectiveness, and understanding that the story shines.

The Truth According to Us was published by The Dial Press/Random House in June ($28.00, hardcover, 512pp).  I requested it on NetGalley and subsequently received a print ARC from Shelf Awareness, a true embarrassment of riches!  It will make my top 10 of the year.


  1. A wonderful book; and an excellent review. I love your blog and get many titles from it. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, that's great to hear!
      Glad you agree on the book. I enjoyed this one even more than Guernsey, which was very good.

  2. As you know, the thirties are the setting for my writing also, and your reference to the WPA reminded me of Roosevelt's response when someone complained about writers being allowed into the program.

    FDR replied: "After all, they have to eat, too."

    1. Great response. And the results of their efforts are valuable to historians today. I saw online that the FWP writers were paid a "subsistence wage" of $20/week.