“Ella is nearly invisible at the Willing School, and that’s just fine by her. She’s got her friends – the fabulous Frankie and their sweet cohort Sadie. She’s got her art – and her idol, the unappreciated 19th-century painter Edward Willing. Still, it’s hard being a nobody and having a crush on the biggest somebody in the school: Alex Bainbridge. Especially when he is your French tutor, and lessons have started becoming, well, certainly more interesting than French ever has been before. But can the invisible girl actually end up with a happily ever after with the golden boy, when no one even knows they’re dating? And is Ella going to dare to be that girl?”
Truth: It took me roughly 160 pages to adapt to the story’s quirks and various plot devices; another 30 or 40 to be able to say that I was actually beginning to enjoy it.
By all accounts, The Fine Art of Truth or Dare should have hit it out of the park with me. The novel features a shy heroine; a girl no one notices, really, except to poke at old wounds. Ella’s let the hand life dealt her bruise her confidence, and while she’s honest with herself about needing to tackle her issues, she can’t bring herself to accept that she might actually be as great as her friends and family insist she is. And speaking of her family: It’s a big, enthusiastic Italian brood, comprised of individuals who love and support her. That kind of strong family unit never fails to be a check in my pro column. There’s also the art bit: Ella has a crush on a deceased artist, dreams of pursuing her own art through college and beyond, and spends an awful lot of time sketching on her pants. Though her own artistic efforts rarely took center stage, what discussions were had on the subject and Ella’s thoughts on different art forms offered a nice break from…everything else. And, finally, there’s the boy: charming, intelligent, don’t-judge-him-by-the-alligator-on-his-shirt* Alex Bainbridge.
The odds were stacked in its favor, but for all of the story’s appeal, I found myself having to work to immerse myself in it. I have a theory, but you’ll have to bear with me as I try to lay it out.
First, Ella has back-and-forth conversations with Edward Willing, the artist – long deceased – that she’s doggedly studied and developed a crush on. I found these lengthy dialogues jarring. The “discussions” were Ella’s way of navigating her thoughts and feelings in order to see any given situation more clearly. Edward – or his voice, though I’m not sure that’s a more accurate way of putting it – was a manifestation of Ella’s consciousness. Maybe. My armchair diagnosis may be completely off base – and, honestly, I may be overthinking it – but I needed something to justify all of those interactions, which were presented as though Ella was in her room, talking to a friend. As the novel progressed I began to take these instances for granted, but that first time threw me for an extended moment, and I almost put the book aside. (The need to clarify is brewing in me, so let me stress: it was the presentation I found jarring, not the behavior.)
Next, the way the story was arranged, with seemingly random chapters stuck in between those that gave the plot forward momentum, was also jarring. For instance: A chapter in which Ella had one of the discussions mentioned above was followed by a brief chapter that presented excerpts from texts chronicling that artist/crush’s life and art; that was then followed by a two page chapter that consisted solely of Alex opposing a teacher’s view on magic in literature, and on the heels of that was a chapter that made the two that came before it seem entirely irrelevant. Granted, that wasn’t the case, but as I was reading, the in-between chapters didn’t feel necessary. I was forced to keep the information gleaned in those chapters at the forefront of my mind in order to see how it applied to the story as a whole.
Those two points explain, in part, what I meant by having to work to keep myself present in the story. It took a considerable amount of time and effort to settle in, to find a way to enjoy the story’s most basic premise: a sweet romance between a shy girl and seemingly unobtainable guy. And even that came with difficulty, because Ella and Alex’s relationship unfolded in the thick of so many other things. Nearly every character, it seemed, had a problem of his or her own, was contending with an impotent or frustrating parent, or otherwise interacted with Ella in such a way as to fracture the focus from her story, her attempts to reconcile who she is and who she wants to be. Absolutely, I want diversity and depth in secondary characters, but…
To a certain extent, several of them – including members of Ella’s family, her two best friends, and Alex – veered toward caricature. They were likable, but they were there for a REASON. Namely, Ella had enough on her plate and couldn’t also deal with important issues such as 1) living with an overbearing mother obsessed with her daughter’s weight and style, 2) having a twin brother who is a polar opposite (belongs to a gang, attends public school, etc.), and navigating a flashy private school when your family is strict and low income…The list could continue on. What it comes down to is that, on occasion, I wondered if these characters were included for their own sake, or because it was felt more issues needed to be addressed in order for the story to be meaningful and/or relevant. (As for Alex…You know the smart, good-looking, popular guy? The one whose parents have his life plan outlined, color-coded, and saved in a spreadsheet file? The one who wants to be something else – like become an artist rather than a lawyer? The one who’s a really good guy despite the arrogant, jerky friends he hangs out with? Meet Alex Bainbridge.)
But coming back around to the romance: was it sweet? Yes. Was it swoon-worthy? In my opinion, no. With everything else, it just…got a little lost, and while I wanted Ella to achieve some kind of happy ending, whether it was with Alex or not was incidental.
Truth: Perhaps my favorite aspect of the novel was the many mentions of food. Italian, mostly, but also Greek, and even some junk food. Each chapter, it seemed, made me crave something – pizza, cannoli, ravioli, biscotti. By the time I set the book down, I wanted a four course meal.
In the end, I was pleased to have finished the book, and would even say that I liked it. It just took some effort to get there.
*It may not have been an alligator, though Izod/Lacoste was the first thing that came to mind when Ella takes note of the – thing – on his shirt.