Though Annie Barrows is a successful children’s book writer, she is perhaps best known for being the co-author of the 2008 bestseller The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, finishing the project about a secret and quirky Nazi-era book club when her aunt Mary Ann Shaffer became ill. Now Barrows is back with a solo-written title for adults: The Truth According to Us is a Southern novel about the Depression-era town of Macedonia, West Virginia, where the Romeyn family’s stock has fallen considerably since its late patriarch ran the town’s biggest industry, a hosiery mill, earlier in the century.
The Romeyn family’s association with the American Everlasting Hosiery Company is a distant memory by 1938. That’s when U.S. Senator Grayson Beck decides he’s tired of supporting his daughter, Layla, who has expensive tastes in clothes and a strong determination not to marry the dandy he’s chosen for her. After securing a New Deal job for her with the Federal Writers’ Project, he cuts her off and sends her to Macedonia, where she’s charged with writing the town’s history for its sesquicentennial celebration.
As a girl whose privileges have been revoked, Layla Beck boards with the Romeyns—siblings Felix, Jottie, Minerva, and Mae, as well as Felix’s two girls, Willa and Bird. Theirs is an untraditional arrangement, to say the least. Felix makes ends meet as a bootlegger, while Jottie makes meals, handles the boarders, and raises the girls. The other sisters, Minerva and Mae, each have husbands, but they live with them only on weekends because they can’t stand to be apart from each other any longer than that.
As Layla interviews the town’s “first families” and tries to make sense of Macedonia’s history, twelve-year-old Willa, equal parts bookworm and tomboy, does her own sleuthing, mostly to find out how her charming but unreliable father spends his time and what he actually does for a living. When she’s not trying to sabotage the budding romance between her father and the much younger Layla, Willa discovers secrets about the late Vause Hamilton, who had been Felix’s best friend and Jottie’s first love.
While The Truth According to Us is filled with family drama, heartbreaking loss, and delightful descriptions of small-town, Depression-era America, it is also chock-full of well-turned phrases and humorous banter. Like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, a good chunk of the narrative structure in Barrows’s new book is built on written correspondence, much of which is to, from, or about Macedonia’s fetching newcomer, Layla Beck.
When she receives a letter from a former flame named Charles, essentially making known his availability for a visit provided her lodging doesn’t involve “an old lady in a lace collar barricading your virtue,” the town’s fledgling historian sharpens her pen on his oversized ego: “It’s perfectly plain that you want to come here to go to bed with me, nothing else, but what I find most insulting is your assumption that the flyspeck of charm expended in your letter would be adequate to achieve that end,” she writes. “Didn’t you issue an irreversible diktat of banishment at our last meeting? Or had the bourgeois fog that clouds my reason (a direct quote) got into my ears as well? Perhaps I am mistaken and you didn’t say that our relations were founded upon decadent individualism and that I was nothing more than a whore of the upper class. No, I remember it clearly. That is what you said. Those bourgeois fogs come and go.”
Much of The Truth According to Us is narrated by Willa, whose scraped elbows and knees the reader can vividly imagine, along with the sweating glasses of ice tea on the front porch and summer dresses that are damp with sweat before 9 a.m. Barrows has written an intricate and moving family novel that explores the possibilities of forgiveness—and that will render readers nostalgic for the curiosity of childhood and the magic of summer.
Liz Garrigan is a senior editor at Worldcrunch, which delivers global journalism to English-language readers. Formerly the editor of the Nashville Scene, Garrigan now lives in Paris, France.