{Review} The Fine Art of Truth or Dare by Melissa Jensen

You know that love-hate thing that everyone has with Julie Taylor on Friday Night Lights?

I had that same relationship with this book and with Ella, the narrator of Melissa Jensen’s The Fine Art of Truth or Dare. On one hand, she really is smart, and she matures throughout the story, on the other hand, like Julie, I didn’t find myself rooting for Ella to get the nice guy love interest, Alex, until the very end (kind of like Julie). 

Ella is a working with a  somewhat visible scar, on a scholarship at The Willing School, a wealthy private school in Philadelphia. Unlike her classmates, she lives in the neighborhood in which the school is located, where her family also runs a restaurant. In TFAoToD, we follow her as she navigates class differences, changing relationships with friends, mean girls, a research project about a dead artist and a budding relationship with her lacrosse star French tutor. 

Sounds like a lot? It is, even though the book is relatively lengthy for a contemporary YA at 380 pages.

There is, however, a lot to like in this novel.

TFAoToD is smart. Art is a big part of the novel, as Ella researches Edward Willing, a Philadelphia-based artist with whom she’s borderline (well, probably not even borderline) obsessed. While I know some reviews of the novel have complained that it’s bizarre that Ella spends so much time talking—yes, literally talking—to a dead artist, I loved this element. Perhaps it’s because I have an art history background, but I totally get it. I remember becoming completely immersed in Dorothea Lange’s life and work when I was writing a massive research paper for my American Women Artists course my sophomore year in college. Jensen doesn’t hold back in the art nerdiness of TFAoToD, and it clearly demonstrates her own knowledge of that world. 

The humor is no less intelligent. It’s witty (maybe a smidge too witty for teens, but that doesn’t bother me as an adult reader of YA). Ella’s internal (and often self-deprecating—more on that later) monologues had me giggling to myself and highlighting like crazy in my e-reader, 

And there it was. Alex now knew that I was a penniless coward with a penchant for stinky fish. I knew he was officially adorable. 

The other characters are smart and funny and quirky as well, and as a reader, even if it’s unrealistic, I loved it.

“Nothing but the occasional espresso is perfect*,” she said, not unkindly. “Let me share some wisdom, Willing Girl. Relationships are like Whack-a-Mole. You squash one annoying deformity and another one pops up in no time.”

I often struggle with contemporary YA fiction because the relationships with friends are so beyond my experiences as a teen that they feel either,

  1. Overwrought with Dawson’s Creek-style drama; or
  2. Nauseatingly perfect in their chumminess.

Jensen avoids both traps in TFAoToD, creating a portrait {Puns! Yes!} of a group of friends that fight, care about each other and grow apart and together—you know, totally normal stuff. Frankie is a wonderful character with his own problems related to his family situation and he’s a gay character who’s not a sterotype {Win!}. Sadie, Ella’s other best friend, is an equally interesting character, coming from a privileged background with all of the expectations that go along with that—particularly in relation to her appearance. The following is a great example of the dynamic that characterizes this trio, 

“We’re just going to a movie!” she protested. “Besides, Jared’s not … not …” She gestured down at her lippy hips. “He’s practical and sensible and quiet.”

“Oh, my God!” Frankie slapped both palms to the side of his face, and turned to me. “Sadie has a date with a Prius!”

Quite honestly, I could easily see books about both characters being quite compelling (likely more so than Ella’s story, but more on that in a minute). 

And, of course, we have Alex the French Speaking Lacrosse Star. He’s a good dude. Like, a really good dude. He’s caring and smart and artistic and good-humored and I spent much of the book thinking that he was too good for Ella (ala Matt Saracen & Julie Taylor) and that he was patient beyond reason. Much of what I really enjoyed about Alex as a character is similar to what I liked about the rest of Ella’s friends: he defies stereotypes, he’s good humored and intelligent, he grows throughout the novel. And, like Frankie and Sadie, he cares about Ella and wants her to see herself as the awesome person she is (more on that later). This scene epitomizes the dynamic between the two,

I couldn’t see his expression clearly. It felt like a long time before he said anything.

“Ella …” He paused, then, “What happened? Between you and Anna?”

“Other than the fact that I’m a fashion-impaired poor kid who draws doorknobs? Haven’t a clue.”

Alex leaned forward. Now I could see his face. He looked annoyed. “Why do you do that? Diminish yourself?”

“I don’t—”

“Bullshit.” I could feel my cheeks flaming, feel my shoulders curving inward.

“I don’t—”

“Right. Don’t. Just don’t, with me, anyway. I like you better feisty.”

There’s a chapter in TFAoToD that is simply and email exchange between the two that I adored—it was so, so real, probably the realest aspect of the entire novel. Sharing any of it would be massively spoilery, so I won’t quote from it—but it’s fabulous and awkward and perfect. Trust me.

Oh, and I can’t even begin to explain how happy it makes me to find a YA set in an urban environment. 

So what’s the problem? 

My problems with TFAoToD were threefold:

  1. I didn’t really care for Ella; 
  2. I was promised one thing and given something completely different; and
  3. I’ve read this story before, but in a way that was more focused and nuanced. 

I really struggled with Ella as a character, and even more so as a narrator. In the scenes that didn’t deal specifically with Ella’s passion for art, I found myself increasingly frustrated by her inability to listen to all of the awesome people around her (I didn’t even touch on her awesome family or her mentor). I get that this character trait was part of moving Ella’s journey forward, but it got absolutely ridiculous. As a result, she let the nastiness of her private school’s resident Mean Girls rule her life, which causes all sorts of problems, and ultimately leads to over-the-top Big Misunderstandings. She was a pretty generic YA Heroine with a Problem That’s Not Really a Problem in Real Life. 

One of my biggest issue with this book is something beyond the author’s control: the marketing. The cover blurb literally says, “Anna and the French Kiss Meets Pretty in Pink.”

Um… no. Just no. 

The only thing that TFAoToD has in common with Anna is that both of the main characters are learning French (at least Alex isn’t a shorty shortskins like Etienne St. Claire—yeah, I said it). And the Pretty in Pink comparison? Aside from the classes differences, I’m not really seeing that one either. So, when I picked it up, I was thinking I’d have a nice, fun, fluffy read to cleanse my palette after so many heavier stories (my brain just hasn’t been right with books since I read The Fault in Our Stars back in January). I wanted to get carried away into something that was a fun, sweet fantasy and that wasn’t at all what this book was about. Really, the marketing of this novel is doing it a disservice. I would have likely read it anyway, but it would have been when I wanted a heavier, “issues” contemporary YA. 

Which leads me to my final problem with TFAoToD, I’ve read this book before—a bunch of times. Probably my favorite telling of this basic story is Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever (which is one of my favorite books—I must write an “I Love“ about it), and it has the same “game” theme as TFAoToD, without all the other stuff getting in the story’s way (in TFAoToD, scenes of parties and dances and of Ella’s family’s restaurant take up significant real estate without really propelling the story forward). Despite the fun dialogue and eventual growth in the main character, I was never swept away like I have been with other, similar stories—TFAoToD a good addition to the slew of YA lit that tackles the issue of being true to oneself, but it’s not necessarily a memorable one. 

Ultimately, there’s an ongoing theme of the truth in TFAoToD. Telling the truth to others, discovering the truth about history and, ultimately being truthful with oneself. If you read this novel as such, you won’t be disappointed. If you go into it (as I did) expecting a swoon-y and sweet Anna & the French Kiss-style YA romance, you’ll likely be unsatisfied.

FNL Character Rating: Julie Taylor (for aforementioned reasons)

Verdict: Recommended (but don’t trample anyone, Black Friday-style, in order to get your copy)

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