1938 was an important year for Willa Romeyn; her hometown of Macedonia, West Virginia celebrated its sesquicentennial, Miss Layla Beck came to stay while she wrote a history of the town, and Willa herself turned twelve and began to wonder about the secrets that adults kept to themselves.
Willa and her sister Bird live in the old family home with their eccentric extended family - their frequently-absent divorced father Felix, his unmarried sister Jottie who acts as housekeeper and substitute mother to the girls, and his twin sisters, Mae and Minerva who, despite both being married, can't bear to be apart so live during the week at 'home', visiting their husbands at weekend. The only family member to leave home (and town) is younger brother Emmett; more dependable and trustworthy, he's always overshadowed by flamboyant and charming Felix. The Romeyns were once an important family in town but now they've come down in the world, living in faded splendour and having to take in a lodger in the shape of Layla Beck.
Layla has come to Macedonia unwillingly. As the privileged daughter of a senator, her life in Washington DC has been one of parties, social engagements and generally having fun. Now, having refused to go along with her father's plans to marry her off, she's effectively been thrown out of the family home and told to fend for herself. Pulling a few strings, her father arranges to have her taken on by the Federal Writer's Project and so she finds herself heading for West Virginia to write a history of Macedonia. She's expecting a dull, dreary town filled with dull, dreary people, and the Romeyns are not at all what she's expecting - they're witty, charming and attractive, particularly Felix, for whom she quickly falls.
Set in the era of the Great Depression, Prohibition and boot-legging, The Truth According to Us is a wonderful absorbing coming of age tale of family and their secrets. Willa is just reaching an age when she starts to question things she's so far taken for granted - why has Aunt Jottie never married? how exactly does her father earn his money? and just how did Vause Hamilton die in a fire at their family's mill? She's sure that the answers are all linked, and with a child's enthusiasm sets about playing detective and finding out, never thinking of the possible consequences. Layla too, in her capacity as town historian, is bent on finding out secrets - the gossipy, scandalous kind of history that the town council would rather was forgotten but which she feels would make a far more interesting book.
There are just so many things to love about this book - the writing style, the characters, the setting.
The story is told in a variety of ways - Willa's first person reminiscences, third person narrative following Jottie and Layla, letters to, from and about Layla, Jottie's dream-like flashbacks to her youth - and they all add up to make something rather special - a book that I could read again and again, without tiring of it.
The Romeyns with their quirky charm easily captivated me; unusual enough to be interesting, 'normal' enough to be believable, they all display Macedonia's virtues of ferocity and devotion in various degrees.
As for the setting, it captures a point in time between a gracious past and a world about to be changed by war. Macedonia has a mix of old time elegance - the sweltering heat of daytime giving way to cooler evenings spent on the front porch with friends and neighbours dropping by - and down at heel present, with the necessity to take in lodgers, the rise of tension in the town with high unemployment, uncaring owners at the factory and union agitation on the rise.
I'd say this was a gem of a book but at 500 plus pages, it's a large show-stopping gem! It's certainly one of those special books in which you can immerse yourself completely; the characters and setting feel as real as those around you, and when (if) you take a break you'll be shocked to find yourself back in real life.
Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - DoubledayGenre- adult, coming of age, family secrets