Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Fine Art of Truth or Dare, by Melissa Jensen

Ella has an esteem problem, exacerbated by the burns she got on her shoulder when she was younger (and prompted by being a teen).  She spends a lot of time covering up and trying to lay low.  That doesn't stop her from wishing that suave popular Alex would notice her.  Add to the mix Ella's obsession with an obscure American artist (and her "conversations" with him when she's alone in her room), as well as her obsessive search to find out the identity of his secret love life.  Then toss in the antics of her largely stereotypical South Philly Italian family (complete with family restaurant and wise-talking granny).  And, just when you think you can't add another layer, sprinkle on a gay friend and her (predictable) estrangement from him as she chases after dream-boat Alex.  And the dish is called:  a busy little romance with literary pretensions!

Jensen can certainly write lively and witty prose.   She gets her details right:  this Philadelphia is pitch perfect and instantly recognizable.  The characters are amusing, if uninspiring.  And the story has its moments -- many of them completely random (e.g., swimming with sharks -- you'll have to read it yourself to get that one!).  There is one very striking and memorable scene (on page 353 -- if you need a prompt) that will stick with me. 

However, the book is so busy!  Having a few good hits won't make up with the sheer chaotic nature of the storytelling.  The characters are largely stereotypes.  Alex is a pretty boy without much of a personality (I'm terribly amused by other reviewers who describe him as "cute" -- how can you tell from a book?).  He says all the right things and seems pretty boring.  The father, grandmother, and a bitter archivist are forgettable tropes.  The exception is Ella, who gets some moments to shine.  It's a comfortable read but largely insignificant.

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