Author: Nancy Johnson
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.