Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (Spoiler-Free)

Set at the beginning of desegregation in the U.S., Sarah and a few of her schoolmates are about to become the first black students at the formerly all-white Jefferson High. Meanwhile Linda, another Jefferson student and the daughter of a prominent segregationist, just wants to get through her last year of school with as little interaction with these black students as possible, but unfortunately the school has other plans. And as they’re thrown together again and again, they each begin to find themselves inexplicably drawn to the other…

I have mixed feelings on this book. Pluses: It was clearly very well-researched, and sheds light on an incredibly important (and very under-used in literature, as far as I can tell) part of modern history. The conversations between Sarah and Linda were very interesting, too, as was the clash of Linda’s prejudices against her rational mind, when faced with Sarah’s arguments – and her very self (if that makes sense). And although it wasn’t a major focus of the book, I liked how their lives were compared and contrasted throughout the story, as they are both similar and dissimilar in surprising ways.

The book also ended very well, particularly as regards Sarah’s little sister Ruth, who – although her role in the book as a whole was quite small – really shone here.

On the other hand, it was rather one-note, and I feel like the book may have been more impactful if it had had an occasional change in tone; there’s a lot of food for thought here (and I think this would actually be a really great book to study in schools), but it’s very all-racism-all-the-time. The characters were also a little bland… Sarah was generally likeable, but had very little growth, while Linda – who started out more flawed and therefore had more character development – felt a bit more realistic (and I was definitely more engaged with the story when it was being told from her perspective), but considerably less likeable for the majority of the book.

The romance was also not great. Their physical attraction to one another was well built-up throughout the novel, but that seemed to be the entire basis of their relationship, as almost every interaction they had only gave Sarah more of a reason to dislike Linda. The second half of the book elevated romance from sub-plot to actual plot, as it  focused a lot on their respective struggles with their sexuality, but when they eventually do come to terms with their feelings, it’s incredibly sudden, and has no real impetus that I could see… they just change their minds. We hear a lot from both of them about why they shouldn’t be together, but never any reason that they should that had any real weight to it, so it ended up feeling rather unconvincing.

So this book definitely has its fair share of flaws, but I found that I enjoyed it nonetheless… just, not as much as I had hoped to. I do think it’s worth recommending to people who are interested in this time period, but anyone who’s looking for a compelling romance, deep characterisation, or a gripping storyline should look elsewhere.

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