17-year-old Jess has what might seem to be an ideal life: She lives in a huge house in an upscale neighborhood, drives an Audi, and is sent out shopping for whatever she likes, parents’ credit card in hand. She goes to the best parties, where she and her bestie Nance get over-the-top drunk and flirt (and then some) with the best boys. Jess’s party-girl persona is a cover, though — a way for Jess to escape the worries and sorrows that have plagued her ever since a family tragedy two years earlier.
That doesn’t stop her from going too far, and when Jess is busted for daytime drinking, topless sunbathing, and a ridiculously expensive impulse buy on EBay, she’s sentenced to a horrible fate: Jess’s dad forces her to commit to daily “volunteer” work at the local soup kitchen. But Daaaaaad… you can practically hear her whining. So unfair.
Little by little, Jess comes to see the value in what she’s doing. Sure, the shelter is in a seedy part of town, serving lunch to all sorts of homeless riff-raff. And yes, the rest of the shelter volunteer crew and staff look at her as a spoiled little rich girl who’ll never fit in, unable to even walk to the corner bus stop without an escort. But when Jess meets the gorgeous Flynn and his adorable little brother, who come regularly for lunch and then stay to lend a hand, Jess’s heart begins to melt. Not only is she falling for Flynn hard, but she’s also made friends with an old man named Wilf, a widower and the shelter’s benefactor whose grumpy exterior hides the soul of a true romantic… and Wilf can’t resist imparting his own words of wisdom to Jess, including the lesson that love is worth fighting for.
There’s a lot that gets in the way of Jess and Flynn’s exploding feelings. Jess’s dad may want her to learn a lesson by working at the shelter, but he certainly doesn’t want her socializing with a poor boy from a bad neighborhood. Jess’s friends don’t understand why she doesn’t want to drink, flirt, and hook up the way she used to. Flynn’s mother isn’t a fan of Jess, either; to her, Jess is slumming and will only hurt Flynn. But as the summer progresses, Jess and Flynn grow closer, and Jess finally starts to open up about the sadness that threatens to rip her own family apart.
The Truth About Us tackles the subjects of privilege and economic challenges in a thoughtful and sensitive manner. Jess does really seem to have it all — but as the book shows us, even a perfect exterior can hide fractures and difficulty. Granted, Jess never has to worry about the roof over her head or where her next meal is coming from, so I wouldn’t say that her struggles and Flynn’s are equivalent. Still, the story forces readers to acknowledge that pain comes in many forms, and people don’t just get handed happiness alongside their gold credit cards and expensive electronics.
There are moments when the subject becomes a bit clunky:
I use the computer in Dad’s office to go online, and most of the time end up googling things like poverty. My eyes are open to a lot of things I didn’t know about being poor. I always knew my family had money, but it always seemed like everyone else did too.
Googling poverty? It’s really that foreign a concept to her? It’s hard to keep rooting for Jess in certain moments, even though ultimately we know that her heart is in the right place.
The romance in The Truth About Us is perhaps meant to be more of a “forbidden love” than it really seems. Jess’s friends are horrified that she’d get involved with a poor boy. Both Jess’s dad and Flynn’s mother are opposed to the relationship, but they come around eventually. Flynn’s own sense of responsibility toward his mother and brother keep him away from Jess for a time, but we know that these two feel instantly connected and that they’re fated to be together. The obstacles never appear to be truly insurmountable, and it’s not really a surprise when they manage to work things out.
This review perhaps sounds less positive than I actually feel about the book. The writing is witty and sensitive, and I liked the cast of characters very much. The secondary characters, especially Wilf and Jess’s former best friend Penny, are good people with a lot of heart. The story of the disintegration of Jess’s family and their slow steps toward healing is terribly sad, and it’s easy to see how Jess’s life became such a mess. She’s clearly a decent person who means well, cares for others, and wants to make a difference — and once she fights her way out from under her rich girl persona, she starts to grow into the person she wants to be.
I did feel that the realities of homelessness and poverty were a little sugar-coated, and that Jess didn’t see the truth of just how bad things could really be. However, The Truth About Us does show that it’s possible for people from such drastically different worlds to connect in a meaningful way, once they get past their preconceptions and prejudices. I haven’t seen many YA books confronting these issues, and the author should be commended for tackling the topic of economic disadvantage and differences in a way that will hopefully open readers’ eyes.
For more by this author, check out my review of her terrific previous novel, 16 Things I Thought Were True.
Title: The Truth About Us
Author: Janet Gurtler
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: April 7, 2015
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Sourcebooks Fire via NetGalley