Monday, May 11, 2015

The Truth About Alice - Jennifer Mathieu

Jennifer Mathieu is relatively new to the young adult publishing world and in her first novel, she has hit the ball out of the park, as far as I'm concerned. Don't get me wrong. This is a difficult book to read, especially as a mature woman. It's graphic in its portrayal of young people and the culture of high schoolers and their world. I struggle with the level of sexuality, drugs and alcohol use that young people are exposed to, so reading a book as hard-hitting as this is difficult. That being said, it also flew by for me. it's not a long book. Alice's story unfolds fast and furious.

This is a story about the most horrendous case of bullying that occurs in Texas high school over the course of one school year. Alice is going into her junior year when she attends an unsupervised party at the home of a schoolmate. There's drinking and some drug use, there's loud music, and mayhem, and there is hooking up amongst the boys and girls during the course of the evening. Alice comes away from the party with rumors swirling about her behavior - and rumors spread and are blown up and elaborated on. Before she knows it, she is labelled the class 'slut', her friends are pulling away from her in fear of being labelled by their association with her. When one of the young men who she is rumored to have been sleeping with dies in a horrid car accident, Alice is blamed for distracting him by texting him incessantly. She becomes a social pariah and suffers shunning, verbal abuse, character assassination, and harassment. How can she ever make it through the rest of her high school years? The question hovers ...

Mathieu constructs the story of 'the truth' about Alice by using four characters from the different social strata within the high school. These stereotypic characters recount the year and the way Alice becomes a focal point for the students' bullying. Of course, as they recount their point of view on the events, we learn of their individual fears, obsessions, self-consciousness, and foibles. Their 'truths' become warped by their own personality flaws. Alice becomes a fatalistic, hardened recluse that retreats into the hood of her sweatshirt jacket, walks to and from classes in an anonymous 'bubble' that isolates her from hallway slurs, bathroom stall graffiti, lonely lunch table seating, and social snubbing.

The story is told in a mercilessly honest way, leaving this reader emotionally drained.  I know the facts of teenage alcohol use, the levels of sexual activity that young people are engaging in, and the levels of 'cattiness' and mysogyny that can occur in middle and high school cultures. i taught in the setting for close to ten years, but one never gets used to the level of brutality that teenagers can wreak on each other - and perhaps that's the one big fault with this story. Nowhere in the story is there a teacher or administrator that reacts to Alice's predicament. She seems to weather her junior year by hiding in the school library, without any one adult stepping up to help her. Even her mother is absent from the story, off with a new boyfriend or partying after work or on weekends and leaving Alice to her own devices.

The book has been nominated for an award as an offering by best new author ... we'll see how it fares. I found it interesting that my used copy came in mint condition from the east baton rouge Library bookmobile. Hmm. I'm wondering if it was 'removed' from the shelves because of its graphic discussion of teen culture. I can certainly see some school and library leaders being reticent to put it on the shelves, as some parents will have a field day debating its 'appropriateness'. I, myself, think its an important book to have available for kids, as they will easily see themselves reflected in one of the characters telling their own version of 'the truth' about their classmate. in that respect, I think it fosters a level of empathy for all involved with the important lesson that we need to be very careful about making assumptions about others, about becoming involved in the school (or any!) rumor mill, and about believing less of what we hear and more of what we tease out on our own through direct observation and honest communication.

Mathieu's new book Devoted will be coming out in June. We'll see how she develops as an author. In the meantime, The Truth About Alice will most likely remain a top read for high schoolers for a while.

photo: George Hixson

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