The Kindest Lie

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Nancy Johnson
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb 2021 (read Mar. 2021)

The Kindest Lie has been getting a lot of buzz and I was really intrigued when I read the synopsis. Black female engineer, hometown racism, class war – all sounded super interesting – but this book sadly just didn’t deliver. I really wanted to like it, but it was so boring. I felt like the author had a few basic themes that she wanted to cover, but they were so poorly executed and quite frankly, I just didn’t think she was a great writer. I read somewhere she’s a journalist, which I could definitely see, but as a novelist, I think the plot was really lost and the themes just not nuanced enough.

So what’s the book about? 29 year old Ruth Tuttle is witnessing the entrance to a new era when Obama is elected President. Ruth is a successful engineer married to a marketing executive and they’ve just bought their first house together. The natural next step is children, but Ruth harbours a dark secret from her husband that upends their relationship and sends her back to her childhood home with her grandmother in search of answers.

Ruth’s secret is that she was pregnant her senior year. She hid it from her classmates and her grandmother arranged for an adoption. But Ruth’s not sure that she made the right choice and now 11 years later, she’s decided it’s time for answers. But when she returns home, she discovers that the manufacturing plant has shut down and that racial tensions in the town are at a high.

I hate having to give a bad review to a book like this. These are exactly the kind of stories we need more of and the themes that I love to see explored in literature, but nothing about this book worked for me. I really wanted to like Ruth, but nothing about her story made sense to me and I really found myself disliking her. She made herself out to be a victim that was wronged by her grandmother and the choices she made for her. In a way she was right, but she seemed totally content to reap the benefit of those choices for 11 years after. Her grandmother enabled her to go to Yale, get a good education, job, and husband. It was only when her husband starting floating the idea of children and she found herself wanting to be a mom, that she started second guessing the choices she made as a teenager.

I know the whole point of this book is that it’s a commentary on motherhood, but it just enraged me that all of sudden Ruth decided she should be the mother to her child and started trying to find out where her kid ended up and how to upend the adoption. She worries her child didn’t go to a good home and that he wasn’t loved as a mother should love a son. This was too much for me. It’s so freaking selfish to just enter your kid’s like after over a decade without their consent. I know Ruth eventually realizes this too, but I felt like I was supposed to like her character and I only ever felt resentment for her. She tried to blame everything on her grandmother rather than take ownership over the fact that she had actively decided not to be a mother for 11 years. The blame really lay within in my opinion.

While the central theme is about motherhood, there is a sub theme about black identity that I also wish had been better developed. Johnson raises all the right issues, but it was just so basic I didn’t think it added a lot to the story. Like we’re finally at a point in time when society is recognizing how it has mistreated black people for centuries and the violence and injustice that has been enacted against black bodies. I really wanted the author to take it to the next level and really make me think about what that’s like, but I felt she just beat home the same basic points over and over. It’s an age old complaint – but she told me about racial injustice rather than really showing me how that feels to a person of colour. I thought it was an interesting choice to tell part of her story through an 11 year old white boy, and I liked the dimension he added to the narrative, but I really just wanted more depth from all of the characters.

Anyways, this is one of those books that I always have to end with a disclaimer and acknowledge that while I didn’t like it, this book may mean a lot to people of colour. If this book makes you feel seen and understood, then I’m so glad it exists. I really wanted more from it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value and I hope that the audience Johnson intended for this book enjoys it.

The Great Believers

Rating: .5
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Jun. 2018 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I listened to The Great Believers as an audiobook and I feel like I’ve been working on it for a long time. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, there were parts of the book that I really liked, and other parts that I found kind of boring.

First of all, I will say that the scope of this novel is impressive. Makkai tackles a lot in this book. The main plot of the story (for me anyways), centers on Yale Tishman, who is a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980’s and coming to grips with the HIV/aids crisis completely decimating his entire community. The novel opens with the death of Yale’s friend Nico, which in a round-about way initiates a conversation between Yale and Nico’s great Aunt, Nora, who would like to donate her personal art collection to the university art gallery that Yale works for, which would be a huge acquisition for Yale and the gallery.

At the same time, a second storyline is set in Paris in 2015 as Nico’s sister, Fiona, searches for her adult daughter who she hasn’t seen in 5 years since she disappeared into a cult in America called the Savannah Collective. I would never have thought to pair any of these plotlines together, so I was impressed with Makkai for her creativeness and scope of the book.

That said, I didn’t love all of the plots in this book. I thought some parts were a lot stronger than others and it’s what really drove the rating down for me. I’ve described 3 major things: the HIV/aids crisis in the 1980’s, an art acquisition, and a missing daughter. Yale’s storyline about the HIV/aids crisis was by far my favourite. I’ve been privileged to have not had to give this period in history a whole lot a thought, so it was both sobering and fascinating to read about.

I really liked Yale. I thought he was super relatable and I loved reading about his relationships with all his friends and his perspective on the HIV/aids crisis. I thought his story had a really good balance of history, politics, and emotion. I connected with him a lot and it was devastating to watch his friends die one by one and the government do nothing. Makkai weaves in a lot of social commentary without overpowering her novel with it. This was still very much a novel about characters and relationships, with just the right amount of history and politics.

I thought the art acquisition storyline was mildly interesting. I liked the parallels that Nora drew between the artists she knew in WWI and the war that Yale and his friends were fighting in Chicago. I have never really read anything about the art world, except maybe like, the Da Vinci Code or something (lol), so this was a whole new world for me that was intriguing to learn about.

But Fiona’s story set in 2015 didn’t do much for me and is what really dragged down my rating and enjoyment. I found myself tuning out for entire sections of Fiona’s story and I felt like very little happened in her timeline. It took forever for the story to advance and when I finally realized what the “so what” was of Fiona’s story at the end of the novel, it felt a little anti-climactic. Fiona had a tumultuous relationship with her daughter that was an indirect result of the trauma of losing all her friends in the 1980’s. She talks about how you can’t really describe what it feels like to survive a war that none of your friends make it out of and how that impacts the rest of your life without you even noticing. I thought this was a fascinating topic and I was eager to explore it, but I thought Fiona’s relationship with her daughter was a laboured way of doing it. I liked Fiona, but I just thought the modern day part dragged the book down. I also felt like I didn’t get enough context of Fiona’s relationship with Claire as a young girl and so I didn’t understand why Claire hated Fiona so much

Overall though, I did like the book and I would definitely place it firmly in the category of literary fiction. Makkai writes with depth and I loved the characterization of Yale and all the secondary characters in his timeline. It wasn’t as stand out a book as I was hoping, but I’m definitely glad I read it.