Review: The Truth about Us by Dalene Flannigan

I read this book based on a review request by its author, Dalene Flannigan.  I’ve received a number of review requests in the last year but this is the first one I’ve accepted.  The book has positive reviews on Amazon, and I read the first chapter and found myself interested in the story and characters.

Flannigan is the author of two novels, including this one, and two full-length plays.  She has also written two videos on hearing loss: Unheard Voices and Let’s Make it Clear…Clear Communication and Hearing Loss (which won the Barbara Jordan Media Award). Flannigan lives in Toronto but was born on a street called Rottenrow in Glasgow, Scotland.

The Truth about Us is a fairly short novel about three roommates in college who come together years later to discuss whether to reveal a decades-old secret.  Flannigan’s website describes the story in this way:

What happens when the past catches up to the present and the truth surfaces? Three women, roommates back in college, find their lives forever altered when one of them feels compelled to confess the secret sin of their past.

And whose truth is it?

‘The Truth About Us’ weaves the past and the present in a page-turner that explores the shifting quality of truth, and the cost of secrets.

The story is told from the point of view of three roommates, Grace, Erica, and Jude, about 20 years after college.  Grace makes documentary films about violence against women.  Erica is married with two five year old boys.  Jude has discovered religion as a way to cope with her previous abuse by her father and her years of drug addiction.  Part of Jude’s new-found religious fanaticism is to confess all her sins.  She’s convinced that Grace and Erica need to join her in confessing their part in something that happened to them during college.

In the opening chapter, Grace describes herself as a child without a father (her mother never tells her who he was) who struggled as a girl with femininity and her appearance.  In response to accusations that she’s a man-hater because of her films, she says “I don’t hate all men.  Just some of them.  The ones who deserve to be hated.”  She goes on to explain that, “Trouble is, girls aren’t supposed to hate.  It’s very unattractive, especially on a tall, thick-legged girl.”

Erica, in the beginning of the book, has just discovered that her husband Dave is cheating on her.  She gets a call from Jude that sets off the rest of the story.  Erica is torn between the crisis in her current-day life, and the fear of what revealing their secret might cost her.

This was a fast-paced read that kept my interest and raised some interesting issues.  I do think, however, it could have benefitted from more character development and more subtlety in the story.

The story is told from fairly equal points of view among the three women.  This is a difficult strategy to pull off, because it limits the writer from fully developing any one character, unless you really grow to see the characters through each others’ eyes, which I don’t think happens here (The Marriage Plot, for example, does an excellent job of writing from three points of view).   I feel like Erica was really the center of the story, and deserved more attention.  Of the three, she felt the most multi-dimensional; Grace was interesting but underdeveloped, and Jude was a bit of a caricature.

This is a story about an abuse that Grace suffers in college, and what happens as a result of that abuse.  But even more, it’s about how our actions affect us years later, especially when we have to keep them secret.  It’s also about the things friends do for each other.  What made this book worthwhile for me was the moral ambiguity throughout.  Grace’s actions lead to her friends taking actions that are not only morally problematic, but illegal to boot.  The characters don’t question what they’re doing at the time, but years later have to deal with guilt and fear of discovery.  When is retaliation against an abuser justified?  Should all secrets be told?  How, and when?  Is this Jude’s secret to tell?  When should friends lie for each other, and when should they be held accountable for the actions of another?

While I enjoyed the book overall, I think the plot would have benefited from more subtlety.  Grace’s character, for example, is most sympathetic when she’s recounting the early days of her friendship with Erica, and how this friend not only understood her insecurities but challenged her to grow. Unfortunately, while she explains how much this friendship means to her, she doesn’t act in a way that considers anyone’s feelings but her own, and she utterly refuses to consider the consequences of her actions.  Similarly, the Jude storyline was compelling at first but became too “over the top” for me.

Not only are Grace and Jude a little too extreme, but the “villains” in the book are extreme as well.  Flannigan paints a picture of the world as having sexual assailants lurking around every corner – in our homes, on dates, on street corners, and in our churches.  While I’m no optimist about people, and in fact I worked in domestic violence and sex crimes prosecutors’ offices during law school so I’ve seen some truly horrific things, this just seemed to lay it on too thick.  Of course, sometimes a person abused as a child might be vulnerable to abusers later in life – but I question whether it was necessary in the context of this book, and if so, whether it was sufficiently explored.

Plus, sexual violence isn’t the real story here.  Surprisingly, the real story for me was about Erica, and how she grows as a person and as a wife during the course of the book.  She has to negotiate a crisis in her marriage and at the same time cope with the fear that she could lose everything she has – and in the process she realizes that sometimes being the “strong one” means you take care of everyone but yourself, and that opening up in a relationship can be a lot harder than it sounds.  Erica and Dave – not Erica, Jude, and Grace – are the story that makes this book meaningful.

I don’t know if Flannigan meant for this to be the core of the story, or if it’s just how I read it.  I identified with Grace in a lot of ways, but in the end, Erica was the only character I came to care about.

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