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.