The most frustrating sort of book is the book that you desperately want to love but simply can’t. Sadly, this is the sort of book that The Kindest Lie was for me. It seemed to have so much going for it: the intersection of the personal and the political; timely themes about race, class, and identity; a protagonist with a secret and ambivalent feelings about her childhood home.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out between me and this book, and I’m sad about it.
I had two issues: first, the characters never came alive for me; and second, the author did not trust the reader and this grated. (Well, two-and-a-half issues, because the ending felt unearned but I would have forgiven that if the characters and writing had worked.)
First, the characters. I just never got the feeling that the characters had been deeply imagined. I did not learn anything about them that wasn’t required for the plot. Ruth, the protagonist, makes decisions that make sense for the plot the author has in mind, but don’t add up to a coherent character — especially not one as smart as Ruth is supposed to be. And I defy anyone to read this novel and explain the marriage of I found myself applying a version of the Julie Taylor test — could I imagine these people’s lives outside the confines of this book? I could not. I experienced these characters the way I experience mannequins in museum dioramas. I found it very difficult to invest emotional energy in stick figures.
Secondly, the lack of trust in the reader. I found this immensely frustrating because every time I started thinking about the deeper issues that the book raised — and these are vital issues that we should all be thinking about! — the author told me exactly what to think. This passage, for example, in which the author essentially highlights a section of her book and writes “IRONY” next to it in all caps:
Ruth had made a vow to never become the girl the world expected her to be, the one who slept around and got pregnant by a guy who walked away. Yet that’s exactly who she had become. Her mother’s daughter. Her greatest motivation to excel in school and become successful had been the driving desire to reverse that fate.
Similarly, near the end of the book the author explains the meaning of Christmas to her readers. No one who has watched and comprehended It’s a Wonderful Life should need this spelled out to her:
She had attached almost every grievance in her life to someone here. But on Christmas, everything came into focus more sharply and she saw them all with new eyes—their flaws and their beauty—and she chose to appreciate them because, in the end, they were family.
These are conclusions the reader should be drawing for herself, and if you as an author read your chapter and worry that the reader won’t get it, the solution is not to write it out in explicit detail (unless, I suppose, you are actually composing a Sunday School lesson).
I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. I very much wanted to like this book. The questions that the author wants to ask are interesting and important. But these flaws are, for me, fatal to a work of fiction. If the themes of the novel — questions about Blackness in America specifically, and questions of identity generally — are what draw you to this book I think you are better served by the novels of Yaa Gyasi and Brit Bennett.