Book Review: True Story by Kate Reed Petty

True Story – Kate Reed Petty (Viking, 2020)

I received an Advance Uncorrected Proof of this book. All opinions are my own.

This book is stunning. It’s a thriller, a horror story, an indictment on rape culture. It explores women’s stories and how they’re told, how they’re received. It looks at domestic violence, alcoholism, relationships. It’s creepy, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s eminently readable.

I’d heard nothing about either True Story or Kate Reed Petty (this is her debut novel) and picked the book up to fill a quiet moment on a Saturday evening. I’d finished it by Monday.

In 1999, a rumour spreads through a Baltimore suburb: two high school lacrosse players drove a private school girl home from a party. In the back seat of the car, while she was passed out, they took advantage of her. The story spreads from the teenage boys themselves, boasting of their supposed sexual prowess to their friends. We hear this section from the perspective of Nick Brothers, a senior on the lacrosse team. Not one of the boys in the car but a close friend and teammate. The “private school girl” is never given a name in Nick’s story. She is little more than an object, a potential stumbling block on the way to these boy’s glowing futures.

We first meet Alice through the drafts of her college application essay as she struggles to move on from what happened to her “while she was sleeping”. 

Then fifteen years later, we meet Nick again, headed to the woods on an epic bender by himself. Only his late 20s, his life has been dominated by booze and he heads to a remote cabin to drink his sorrows away. But something else seems to be there with him.

We return to Alice through her e-mails as we see where life has taken her as an adult. Interspersed between the sections are screenplays, written by Alice and her childhood best friend. This friendship is a thread that runs throughout the story and Alice’s life, drawing connections between multiple characters.

Petty plays with format and genre. The story is told through letters, through e-mails, through interviews and from multiple perspectives. Much of the first person perspective comes from Nick, someone not directly present for the central incident. We come at Alice’s perspective sideways, never able to quite step inside of her head. All of this is a clear and deliberate choice by the author, making us think about how women’s stories are told, particularly ones involving assault.

(Side note: I was reminded many times of Know My Name, Chanel Miller’s powerful memoir, and the strength of telling our own stories.)

The book is also full of references and throwbacks, particularly to horror movies and Petty frequently uses these to unsettle her reader, while also misdirecting us. I’m not a frequent horror movie watcher so horror fans would likely pick up on more references than I did, but those I did spot had me appreciating Petty’s cleverness as I read.

It’s always exciting to read a debut novel this strong and I’m very excited to see more of Kate Reed Petty.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: True Story by Kate Reed Petty”

  1. Never heard of this book or this author, but sounds very timely and much needed. I was thinking of Chantal MIller too actually, and isn’t is strange how men with athletic talents are always given the benefit of the doubt? Like, their ability to catch or hit a ball always elevates their status in our society?

    1. Chantal Miller’s story was in my mind throughout but it also brought to mind that case in Steubenville a few years ago that involved some student athletes and wasn’t there something about the Duke lacrosse team too? It is way too easy to find real life examples of this.

      This is the author’s first novel but I haven’t heard about it at all outside of having read it myself. What got my attention was the blurbs from Elif Batuman, Mona Awad, and Tim O’Brien. I figured it had to be worthwhile if those three enjoyed it!

  2. Ooh, this sounds good! I saw this was a BOTM extra last month but I didn’t really look at it because I wanted The Death of Vivek Oji first (which I haven’t actually managed to read yet anyway)… but I may have to add this one to my September box, it looks great! I’m very intrigued by the Know My Name comparison, and love a good horror/thriller in the fall, so I think this will be perfect to pick up soon. Great review!

    1. I think it’s really good and I have yet to hear much talk about it. It’s totally different than Know My Name but reminded me of Miller because of the importance of telling these stories and how so often the story we hear is dominated by the man’s story.

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