Contemporary young adult romance is very hit or miss for me, but despite a few quibbles, I mostly enjoyed Huntley Fitzpatrick’s debut My Life Next Door and often recommend it to library patrons. For this reason, I had high expectations of her sophomore novel, What I Thought Was True, and they were mostly met.
What I Thought Was True by Huntley Fitzparick
Published: April 15th 2014 by Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin
Source: ARC from publisher
Synopsis (Goodreads): Gwen Castle’s Biggest Mistake Ever, Cassidy Somers, is slumming it as a yard boy on her Nantucket-esque island this summer. He’s a rich kid from across the bridge in Stony Bay, and she hails from a family of fishermen and housecleaners who keep the island’s summer people happy. Gwen worries a life of cleaning houses will be her fate too, but just when it looks like she’ll never escape her past—or the island—Gwen’s dad gives her some shocking advice. Sparks fly and secret histories unspool as Gwen spends a gorgeous, restless summer struggling to resolve what she thought was true—about the place she lives, the people she loves, and even herself—with what really is.
I liked Huntley Fitzpatrick’s debut, My Life Next Door, much more than my review indicates. YA contemporary romance is very hit-or-miss for me, and I went into this book hoping to enjoy this tale of friendship, family, and first love set against a summer on the beach. Luckily, it was all it promised and more.
Gwen comes from a poor island family. Her mother cleans houses, and her father, who is divorced from her mother, owns a local eatery and struggles to make ends meet. She lives with her younger brother, who has special needs, as well as her mother, grandfather, and cousin who is the same age in a crowded, dilapidated house.. However, on the other side of the island, there are many wealthy people who own beachfront property and send their children to elite private schools, which creates a very obvious class divide. I often find this kind of set up in YA novels contrived, but Fitzpatrick makes this a believable backdrop that adds layers to the story rather than jut being a sort of plot device.
The supporting characters are all fully realized, equally flawed, and utterly compelling. Gwen’s parents, the group of elderly ladies she spends time sunbathing and reading romance novels aloud to, her close friends and larger social circle, are all interesting enough on their own that I’d read each of their stories. I was particularly interested in Gwen’s cousin Nico and his childhood love, Viv, who happened to be Gwen’s best girlfriend. Nico and Viv’s story about how different life goals and simple curiosity can tear apart a young couple who are still very much in love could have easily been its own novel.
But ultimately, this is Gwen’s story.
I appreciated the frank and honest portrayal of a young woman’s sexuality. Gwen has made some decisions she regrets, but she’s learning from them, and not defined by them. She’s grappling with her own desire, something that she’s been conditioned to think is what guys are supposed to feel, not ‘good’ girls. She’s dealt with boys (and men, and even her father) treating her differently ever since she’s developed breasts. These aspects of growing up are acknowledged in an authentic way. There is a lot to think about and discuss in this book: consent, slut-shaming, safe sex. Yet none of these elements are the sole focus of the story, and it’s not preachy or didactic.
But Gwen’s dealing with way more than just her love life in What I Through Was True. This story is also about responsibility. Gwen cares for her younger brother, contributes to her household income, but ultimately wants to have the choice to leave the island, even if she still loves her hometown. These are all challenges that a lot of teenagers can relate to, and they certainly resonated with me.
This novel is not only strong in content and theme; Fitzpatrick also knows how to effectively construct the narrative. I really liked the structure of the story. Knowing that Gwen has this history with many of the boys, but being kept in the dark about it for so long created a lot of suspense in a rather straightforward tale of teen romance. The backstory was very effectively woven into the present tense narrative.
Likewise, the various subplots mirror one another in theme, but this isn’t so overt as to detract from the story. Each character, from Gwen to Cassidy to the rest of the supporting cast, all struggle with the truth, and when to reveal it. While this is certainly a young adult romance—and a sophisticated one at that—there is so much going on in the novel. It’s so much more than a summer beachside love story. While there are a few threads I wish were more developed—Gwen’s relationship with her father and her job as a caregiver, for example—I recommend this satisfying coming-of-age novel.
Recommended for fans of: Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller (my review), and This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith (my review) both share the complicated relationships and family life set against a beachside locale, and both also explore issues of class. The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler (my review) doesn’t have the small-town, East Coast beach setting, but has similar themes and conflicts.
Ivy Book Bindings: “Ultimately, I cannot recommend this book enough. What I Thought Was True is an incredible story about growing up and facing the hard truths that life throws at you. It’s a novel about coming to terms with the hand you’ve been dealt, learning to cope with change, and, most importantly, sustaining relationships despite the hurdles. Fitzpatrick could have easily molded this into “just another” summer romance but, trust me, it is so much more than that.”