The Kindest Lie

This debut novel by Nancy Johnson is a thoughtful exploration of issues related to race and class in the early Obama years, but it’s also pretty frustrating and ultimately not especially rewarding. 

The book’s main character, Ruth Tuttle, is a Black woman who left her small Indiana town to attend Yale and eventually became a successful engineer (although she’s currently questioning whether she’ll ever advance as much as she deserves). She and her husband are talking about having a baby when Ruth realizes she can no longer ignore a secret she’s kept for years — that she had a child while still in high school and that the baby boy was adopted. Ruth returns to her hometown to see what she can learn about her son’s fate.

Meanwhile, an 11-year-old white boy who goes by Midnight is trying to understand his own future. His father has lost his job, so Midnight lives with his grandmother, but there’s talk of a move to Louisiana. It all has left Midnight bewildered and confused.

The book mostly focuses on Ruth, with occasional chapters showing Midnight’s perspective. These Midnight chapters tended to put the brakes on the narrative because, as intrigued as I was by the idea of presenting a poor white kid’s perspective on the economic downtown, the connection to Ruth’s story seemed weak. But by the time the connection became more clear, I was frustrated with Ruth’s storyline as well.

Ruth herself seemed unrealistically obtuse a lot of the time. Her desire to learn what happened to her son was completely understandable, but she never once seemed to imagine the next steps and focused only on what it would mean for her. It felt like this drive was more necessary for the story than any realistic motivation. 

And that was the case for a lot of the characters’ motivations in the end. The book started out seeming like an interesting exploration of choices and regret and family and community pressures (reminding me a bit of Britt Bennett’s The Mothers), but it ultimately seemed constructed to create conversation rather than to tell a story, with the characters and plot points there to check certain issue-related boxes rather than to be actual living breathing people.

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2 Responses to The Kindest Lie

  1. Ruthiella says:

    Too bad, though I suspect for a different kind of reader, the book would land differently and more positively.

    I also prefer it when books don’t seem to have an obvious agenda or talking points. Which is one thing I liked a lot about both Brit Bennett books – as an author, she steps back and lets the reader make up their own mind and in the case of the Vanishing Half and the ToB, made for some really interesting discussion re: Stella and Desiree and which one was “bad” or “good”.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree that some readers are likely to appreciate what this book is doing, even if it came across as simplistic to me.
      And, yes, Brit Bennett is so good at handling these kinds of stories–I think it’s because she treats her characters as real people, not vehicles for raising an issue.

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