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True Story

Review

True Story

Centering on the familiar but no less harrowing story of a high school party gone very wrong, Kate Reed Petty’s TRUE STORY chronicles the 15 years after a vicious rumor sweeps through a high school --- and the effects it continues to have on four adults still searching for the truth. With sections written in prose, college admissions essays, movie scripts and more, this is a fresh and wholly original take on an all-too-common horror story.

The year is 1999, and Nick Brothers and his lacrosse teammates are rising seniors on top of the world. They’ve made it through daunting tryouts, emotionally draining hazing rituals, and the equally terrifying process of finding their places on the team and within the brotherhood of the boys who play alongside them. Now they are the best players, the hazers and the ones admired for being comfortable in their own skin, but Nick fears that they have become too comfortable. Years of winning games and playoffs has resulted in weekends full of beer and marijuana, and the team has grown lazy, paunchy and tired. With their legacy slipping away, Nick and his teammates agree to throw a legendary sendoff party, The Party WAGLER (The Party Where We All Get Laid [Even Richard]). Richard is the “softest” of the boys, the one who never claims to have hooked up with a girl (and therefore most likely the only honest one among them).

"TRUE STORY is an inventive and completely original novel... But if you take Petty’s skillful writing and combine it with her timely commentaries on sexual assault and consent, and add to that the sheer poignancy of her characters' transformations, you have something else entirely: a true masterpiece."

What follows is a predictably debaucherous evening that ends with half of the boys and Nick’s crush, Haley, sobering up at a Denny’s. Everything is typical until Max, the loudmouth of the group, enters with Richard and boasts about having assaulted a passed-out girl while driving her home. Laughing as he describes her mother’s terror, Max adds that Richard left his varsity jacket with the unconscious girl. While the boys laugh it off, Haley is furious and storms out, leaving Nick to wonder if maybe, just maybe, something has gone very wrong. When a rumor about Max and Richard’s actions that night spreads through the school, town and local police force, the lacrosse team is labeled a group of wild rapists and, true to form, manage to redeem and save themselves, while the victim herself becomes so plagued by rumors and name-calling that she attempts to die by suicide.

Years later, in 2015, we meet the unconscious girl by name for the first time: Alice Lovett. She knows that she has been the victim of some kind of assault, but the worst part of all is that even she has no idea what truly happened that night. Recognizing that she will never know “the things that happened while I was asleep,” she develops a passion for horror movies and a talent for immersing herself in the voices of others as a ghostwriter. Reclusive and cautious, Alice has even parted ways with her best friend, Haley, whose constant badgering for Alice to tell her story (perhaps in one of Haley’s self-produced movies) has felt less empowering than voyeuristic and self-serving. When we meet Alice, she is helping a loud, insecure man tell his inspiring story of how he rose from a bullied, nerdy boy to the owner of a million-dollar company and all-around playboy.

But Alice is not the only character we reunite with in 2015: Petty also reintroduces Nick Brothers, now chubby, bleary-eyed and painfully dependent on alcohol. Having been dumped by “the one,” Nick is retreating to the woods for a planned weekend bender, the one that will finally put him at rock bottom and allow him to emerge, phoenix-like, as a well-adjusted and respectable man worthy of reclaiming his life and love.

Alternating between Nick’s weekend in hell and Alice’s life between high school and 2015, Petty weaves a poignant, riveting novel about the power of a story --- and how differently that power can be wielded depending on who is telling it. What is initially so striking about TRUE STORY is how easy it is to feel for and even root for Nick and his friends. In only a few short pages, Petty gives us intimate access to their sensitive sides, their insecurities and the ways that toxic masculinity has harmed and shaped them. Nick is a perfect protagonist, keenly observant and oftentimes wise beyond his years, but still coddled by society and told that he is exceptional because he is white, male and heterosexual. As Petty writes, “He was a teenage boy --- a jerk and an idiot --- but…. He just wanted to fit in; fitting in was invincibility…. [He] always felt certain he was on his way somewhere better, and always felt certain he deserved it, too.”

Alice is also a highlight of the novel. With her talent for voice, the passages written in her hand read like a nearly academic character study in the best ways. Petty uses Alice's own college admissions essays, screenplays and interviews to tell us more about her than seems possible, and once again forces us to consider the power of voice and stories. It would be a huge disservice to reveal too much about Alice in this review, but I can say that her journey is one of the most shocking I’ve ever read, and it will certainly stay with me for a long time.

In writing about the power of the rumor at the heart of TRUE STORY, Petty turns her novel into an almost meta exploration of story. She pulls at her readers’ emotions, dragging them along every dark possibility and then just as swiftly upends their expectations, forcing them to consider how easily they can be swayed by a good storyteller --- and Petty is one of the very best. Her use of different formats and voices never once fails to meet the incredibly high standards she has set for herself. Yet somehow, even when I was not quite sure where her writing was taking me, I always ended up dumbfounded by her talent and breathtaking observations about life, womanhood and power.

TRUE STORY is an inventive and completely original novel, even when judged on format and technical ability alone. But if you take Petty’s skillful writing and combine it with her timely commentaries on sexual assault and consent, and add to that the sheer poignancy of her characters' transformations, you have something else entirely: a true masterpiece.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on September 11, 2020

True Story
by Kate Reed Petty

  • Publication Date: August 4, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Viking
  • ISBN-10: 1984877682
  • ISBN-13: 9781984877680