For young adults, loving a novel is more than a hobby or casual enjoyment. Teens can build their identities from favorite characters, reconcile their experiences through similar fictional ones, and change their life to mimic stories. I think of, for instance, how I dyed my hair for the first time because Max in Maximum Ride series or how I created a Harry Potter fan club that met during lunch. This passionate attachment to novels and its serious consequences are explored elegantly in the new novel All of This is True by Lygia Day Peñaflor.
Expressed through series of journal entries, novel excerpts, and interviews, the book follows YA-obsessed teenagers and former friends Miri Tan, Penny Panzarella, and Soleil Johnston. The three girls, along with their mysterious friend Jonah, meet and befriend Fatima Ro, the author of their favorite novel. Fatima invites them into the life of a famous author as they invite her into their affluent, party-hosting, private-school lives. As the group works to build “authentic human connections” as Fatima calls it and learn from Fatima’s novel, they are thrown into drama as Miri works to capitalize on her relationship with Fatima, Fatima struggles with writing her second novel, and Soleil tries to uncover Jonah’s past. This ultimately culminates into a scandal when Fatima bases her book around the group, publishing their secrets and leaving all three of the girls eager to tell their own sides of the story.
The characters feel incredibly relevant and real, even if their excessive use of pop culture terminology borders on satire (are people really still saying #selfie unironically?). Miri represents how teenagers aspire to and adopt behaviors of their idols, and you are able to see both how this is felt by Miri and perceived by those around her. Penny is the odd-one-out, whose feelings of abandonment and underappreciation are relatable and near-devastating for the reader. At the same time, she showcases how privilege and affluence can be inadvertently used as a crutch while also going unacknowledged (the rich-people-have-problems-too narrative is just as frustration-inducing as in real life—hopefully a demonstration of Peñaflor’s talent in parody). Soleil brilliantly captures the confusion and excitement of young women in love, who can be pressured by society to be good girlfriends while at the same time eager to explore romantic relationships. Fatima Ro is a controversial, empowered enigma, as she is presented by others and by her writing, which is veiled in fiction and novel editing. The result of this is depending on the storyteller or section of the novel, she could be a tragic genius, a manipulative hack, a caring friend, and so much more. Indeed, what makes the text so riveting is that much of the characterization is startlingly subjective, allowing all the characters (even Miri, Soleil, and Penny) to evolve before the readers’ eyes.
I won’t spoil anything, but the plot of All of This is True was very interesting (at least enough for me to read over 200 pages in one sitting). I am consistently disappointed by mystery as a plot device in YA novels, since reveals are often anticlimactic or way too dramatic to have realistically been kept a secret. However, the novel balances secrets and reveals well, and though I could predict where the mysteries and secrets were headed Peñaflor’s twists kept me on my toes. Furthermore, the issues that the plot holds are ones familiar to high schools, exploring the fine line between extracurricular clubs and cults as well as the intense nature of high school friendships.
Another major pull of the novel is its structure and embracing of the multi-perspective story. It would have been easy to conclude the novel with a third person this-is-what-really-happened chapter, but instead Peñaflor leaves you with four completely different perceptions of the events of the story. Not only does this perfectly embody Fatima’s idea of telling stories as a means of correction and healing, but it resembles a major point of tension in actual scandals (that is, no one can be certain of what really happened).
All of This is True is a brilliant investigation of YA novels and young adult culture in general, as well as the incomplete nature of storytelling. Future novel writers will love all of its subtle advice and insight into writing as a commercial and personal practice. Realistic fiction fans will love it for its, well, realistic portrayals of high school and book fandom experiences. However, if you prefer fantastical, high-intensity stories or want more certainty/trust in your narrator, this isn’t the book for you. And to all those who’ve already read the novel, we need to talk about those last few pages.