(Spoiler Alert: The following blog post contains spoilers from Brent Hartinger’s new book: Three Truths and a Lie.)
I read Brent Hartinger’s new book 'Three Truths and a Lie' this past weekend. For readers unaware of who Brent Hartinger is, he also wrote 'Geography Club'.
Three Truths and a Lie has a great premise, because it’s a gritty contemporary young adult thriller and goes against the typical horror cliché. I mean, yes. The angle where teens are alone in a cabin without any adults has been done before in film and literature. However, Three Truths and a Lie seems different because Hartinger doesn’t bombard readers with senseless violence right away - because he gives us time to understand the characters.
The four main characters, Mia, Rob, Liam, and Galen, play the Three Truths and a Lie game during their first night at the cabin (the game involves saying four things, and three are true and one is a lie). The game gives an opportunity to define the characters. For example, Mia is evasive and Galen likes romantic attention no matter what gender the person is (including guys), even though he’s straight.
The book also deserves props for diversity. Rob and Liam are both gay, and are a couple. But that isn’t the main point of the story. They are just normal teens who are Mia and Galen’s friends. As a result, the diversity blends organically since there’s no preaching or qualifying explanations.
The story’s voice is well-developed because it isn’t just generic prose. Hartinger digs deeper with the first person point of view since he gives the main character (Rob) a snarky personality.
Also, the dialogue is engaging because Hartinger sometimes utilizes action to introduce dialogue as opposed to just having a line of speech or only using “he said” or “she said.”
The imagery is captivating with succinct brief descriptions scattered throughout the book. This is important because writers can sometimes go overboard on imagery, which doesn’t move the story forward. Hitting pause is just boring.
Despite all of these great qualities, the twist ending doesn’t work.
Sure, the story isn’t predictable and left me in genuine shock, and the cliché “I’m crazy” isn’t the ending’s peril. There are only so many stories to tell, and art is subjective. The problem is in the idea itself since it cheats readers of a richer story.
I wouldn’t even care if Hartinger were the first person to invent the “I’m crazy” ending because the final chapter would still fall flat.
The switch in Three Truths and a Lie is that the main character Rob doesn’t exist. He’s really Liam. And Liam kills Mia and Galen because Mia ran him over him years earlier before they became friends.
Don’t get me wrong. Mental illness deserves discussion in pop culture. But the thing is, there’s no room for the twist to breathe since it happens in the last chapter. The reality is, authors shouldn’t spend so much time building a world only to have it not be 100 percent real (in this case “real” applies to the reality of the story). The novel would be better off ending with what happens in Chapter 21, which is that Rob is real and is the last one left since Liam kills Galen and Mia. However, all the stuff that was mentioned about Liam is still true. It’s just that Liam and Rob’s confrontation is the final part, not Rob (who is really Liam) waking up in a mental institution talking to his doctor.
The problem isn’t 100 percent Hartinger’s fault though. Tackling serious issues in literature can sometimes be challenging unless the book is the start of a series since writers only have so much space in one novel.
That’s why television is the perfect medium. Issue of possible cancelation aside, a show gets multiple episodes and seasons, which means there’s a large canvas for issues. 90210 is the perfect example. In Season 1, one of the main character’s (Silver) is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And there’s no sudden dramatic shift to her going on a killing spree and then using the “I’m crazy” defense. What does exist is her subtle changes in behavior and acting more manic. That type of storyline is more genuine. Yeah, television might not be “real.” But viewers see Silver’s journey, which can impact people since art is a form of escapism.
Pretty Little Liars is another example, and I’ll address the books first before the show. The books deal with mental illness in a subtle way, too. The premise for books five through sixteen is that Ali gets revenge against Spencer, Aria, Hanna, and Emily because of her identical twin sister Courtney. Courtney has mental issues (and Ali herself may or may not have mental health problems), and spends her time at a mental institution before the start of the series. However, she’s home one weekend in her parent’s custody and uses that as an opportunity to switch places with Ali. And it works. Now that’s the perfect example of dealing with mental health issues. Sure, the series could go into more depth about mental illness, but at least the “I’m crazy” twist isn’t used for cheap shock value. Nope. Instead, it’s part of a much larger picture.
The Pretty Little Liars television show (which is pretty different from the books) also deals with mental health issues well. Mona’s (the first A) mental health might be ambiguous, as getting a psychological evaluation might be a push so she doesn’t face jail time. But she spends time in a mental institution (Radley Sanitarium). She has solid motivation for being “A” even though she’s cruel. So while I still am not sympathetic to Mona in Seasons 1,2, and even 3, at least she isn’t a caricature of a villain and is fleshed out. Her possible mental issues never change her perception of reality to the point that her grip on what’s real ruins the story like with what happens in Three Truths and a Lie. The second A (Cece Drake) spends time in a mental institution too and goes back after being caught. On a lighter note, the four main girls (Aria, Spencer, Hanna, and Emily) attend counseling sessions several times over the course of the series.
Ultimately, the subtler approach with mental health issues or any issue is much better. Because the worst part is Three Truths and a Lie could be a great book, as the twist would work just fine with everything about Liam and Mia running over him her car years earlier still being true if Rob were real. That’s a creative angle on the “I know what you did last summer” trope because the villain is in the group and not the outsider. Hartinger even plants a clue early on when playing the Three Truths and a Lie game since Mia mentions the accident despite being dishonest since she reveals that’s her lie (even though it’s really her truth). As with some things in life, plans go south since Hartinger falls short with his execution of the idea. But of course, no writer is perfect.
So go ahead and read the book. Three Truths and a Lie is a suspenseful page turner. That much I’ll concede. But pretending that the book ends with Chapter 21 and not Chapter 22 would be better.