All of This is True| Lygia Day Peñaflor
The premise for this book is tantalising. Four teenagers befriend a young author and share their deepest secrets with her. Fast forward one year and the author has disappeared from their lives having published a book based on their friendship and secrets and one of them is in a coma as a result of it.
Multiple Points of View
This was really compelling to start with because you only get hints of what happened with the author, Fatima Ro. Peñaflor uses multiple mediums to tell the story. There are the present-day interviews with Miri and Penny who have opposite perspectives on what happened. There’s the New York Magazine exposé which features Soleil’s digital journal and texts from the time the teens met the author. And finally, there are extracts from the fictional book The Absolution of Brady Stevenson by Fatima Ro.
It was definitely a page turner and though it took a little while to get used to all the different perspectives, it was so interesting to piece together the full picture and see how different people understand and in turn portray an event as well as the potential for manipulation. The similarities between the book within the book and the story itself were so close that they blurred into one and sometimes I had to remind myself what the true and meta-fictional stories were. But that felt deliberate and worked to show how closely Fatima Ro had followed conversations and events that happened in real life. (Though on one occurrence, Fatima’s name is used where her fictional equivalent, Thora, should be used, though I imagine that will be caught on reprints…)
I thought that the secrets might be a little bit more along the lines of Pretty Little Liars or Gossip Girl rather than anything serious – and perhaps that would have made for a better story because the twist was predictable. We get a hint at the big secret that’s caused Jonah, the only perspective we don’t directly see, to start the book comatose after being beaten up. And for me it was clear from the get go what the secret was. If the author was attempting to pull a double bluff on the reader, I didn’t fall for it, meaning I was just waiting for the teens to see it. And that certainly slowed the pace of the story because I was just waiting for the big reveal to come.
Book within the Book
The parts with The Absolution of Brady Stevenson were my least favourite and a little tedious to read. Although Peñaflor is clearly a talented writer, the fictional book within the book, though matching the clichés of a YA contemporary coming-of-age type book, was poorly written. It follows a fictional version of Jonah in the character of Brady Stevenson and creates an unreliable narration of the events. The third person narrator jumps in perspective and serves to demonstrate Fatima’s betrayal. Perhaps this is deliberate, but considering the fictional author is a NYT bestseller (which actually doesn’t mean as much as it sounds like, but STILL) the writing should be better.
Predictable but Unputdownable
As other reviewers have written, the characters were a bit two-dimensional, except for Penny who is seen by the rest as the ditsy shallow princess with the big house, but is actually really genuine and just wants to be included and valued.
Despite the predictability the book was unputdownable. Peñaflor really does a fantastic job of weaving in and out of the story from different perspectives and times as well as adding another layer of fiction in. The ending is somewhat poetic too but ultimately it fell a bit short for me and is not one that I would return to.
Spoilerific Stuff Ahead…
So, the big secret is that Jonah has moved schools and the school he used to go to was involved in a huge scandal involving the wrestling team. While away from training, 3 team members rallied up the rest of the boys and forced a sophomore to perform sexual acts on a training dummy. They filmed it. They were caught and punished. The narrative wants you to believe that Jonah was the victim of the assault. That’s what his girlfriend, Soleil, believes and he of course never corrects her. Peñaflor reveals the secret through Fatima Ro’s book, where the characters find news articles about the scandal and the crime. When I read it, my instinctive response was that he was clearly one of the aggressors not the victim. It’s later revealed that he was the aggressor and had spent a year in juvie. There were too many clues pointing to that for it to be a shock. Why else would he need a second chance? Why else would he get beaten up? What would be a worse secret to reveal? To be a victim or an abuser? The framing of the narrative gave away the second twist too early for me.
And the ending of the book insinuates that he dies whilst in the Absolution fiction he is forgiven and redeemed. I’m not entirely sure what the message is and whether Jonah is supposed to be a redeemable character. While I have a hard line against sexual assault, I also believe that punishment should not be doled out for punishment’s sake but rather as a tool to promote rehabilitation. We never see Jonah’s perspective and therefore only the fictionalised ideal in which he is redeemable, he has changed, he wants to start over. But is he sorry? Has he learnt his lesson? I think that would have been so interesting to explore and sadly, all we get is scandal.