This Book Review is for W.O.W.’s (Women On Writing) Blog Tour
As the pages of this fictional narrative race along, the old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” appears to lose its validity. Though it is at first tempting to view Once Upon A Lie as too contrived, too unbelievable, French’s gift for imposing an immediacy and authenticity to his narrative stops us from wondering whether he is simply fabricating a story so replete with coincidences and an inconceivable confluence of events.
As with many of the world’s great writers – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Dickens, and this century’s Wally Lamb, to name but a few of my favorites – French’s Once Upon A Lie is, as he described it in a recent interview, akin to a “layered tapestry.”
Through each of his characters, he addresses a multitude of life’s challenges: the psychological effects of dysfunctional families of origin, race, religion, wealth, poverty, and the socio-political climate of the 1980s. As he explores issues of love, fate, faith and the consequences of each, we find them all too often on a collision course. Yet, all are real and captivating. He quickly engages us in a story of intrigue. with characters and dialogue all wonderfully created against a backdrop of a world filled with personal crises in the context of the norms of the time.
Told from the points of view of several characters and with his two main protagonists in alternating chapters, each one, Alex (female) and Jaleel, (male) speaks in separate but thoroughly distinct voices. There is no interruption of an imposed narrative, and whether he writes in a female or male voice about life, love and passion, both are authentic.
Alex, an intelligent but in many ways sheltered and deprived daughter of wealthy parents is positioned in stark contrast to Jaleel, an unusually precocious, poor black boy. The two live on opposite sides of town, each foreign to the other. Yet, in their meeting, the story begins to gallop. As stated on the book’s cover, “the two youths see the trajectories of their lives entwine, unravel and come together again . . . As their stories play out over the years in cities far apart, Michael French fills the world of Alex and Jaleel with a cast of vivid characters supporting and threatening their efforts to build a life that works amid the expectations of others and their own conflicting drives.”
Throughout, French pays little attention to the mundane. Chapter after chapter he has us racing through the devastating psychological effects of family secrets, loyalties, and lines crossed between friends. He holds each character up to the mirror of our justice system, which pits the privileged against the poor, leaving us wrestling with questions of what is true in a world where prejudice and ignorance are still very much alive.
French’s astute psychological understanding of his characters and human nature in general is not merely impressive. To this psychotherapist, his grasp of how people respond to trauma as well as complacency is eerily accurate.
Jaleel and Alex’s lives are proof of French’s belief that “faith is a willingness to endure.” Enduring and ultimately succeeding is certainly what each of them proves themselves capable of doing. Beyond that, Jaleel becomes proof of Alex’s experience of him as “a master of adaptation.”
In the end, as Jaleel is “free” to gain education, he follows his passion for writing and thinks of his writings as “sermons more for the multitudes than simply like-minded dissidents and people of color.” With an eerie prescience, French then has Jaleel speak of the news of the day, by writing “Democracy had become a hollow concept. If you didn’t want it to disappear, take your country back from special interests and paid-off politicians. Brothers and sisters – vote, demonstrate, challenge authority!”
In reflecting upon her life in her adult years, Alex’s conclusion about her father is: “No matter the size of his accomplishments, my father’s arrogance had allowed him to take too much for granted–his marriage, his best friend, and most important to me, my allegiance.”
Although French’s characters have every reason to feel hopeless as their lives twist and turn in ways that most of us would not have the resources with which to cope, French makes every effort not to have them embrace violence or revenge. This is perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of the book. As Alex later writes, “Many cheered for a man (Jaleel) whose last decade had been about courage and defiance.” We, the readers, are equally moved by the strength of courage versus the evils of ignorance and revenge.
On the very first page we learn that (the adult) Alex is writing a memoir. She thinks: “My book eludes its ending. Intuition says there’s a missing piece, but I’m not sure where to look for it . . . . . .Unfinished tasks nag at me like an empty stomach.” Ironically, for me, Once Upon A Lie is that memoir in search of missing pieces–especially hers and Jaleel’s.
In closing, Alex says: “ I look at my story as I look at history. In our ever-changing universe, lives collide, and, like runaway planets, we just keep going.”
Giving this book a 5 Star Review, I hope that Michael French will just “keep going.”
About the Author
A graduate of Stanford University with a degree in English and of Northwestern University with a master’s in journalism, Michael French is the author of twenty-four books: adult and young adult fiction, art criticism, biographies, adaptations, and gender studies. A native of Los Angeles, he also is a successful businessman, an avid high-altitude mountain trekker, a world traveler to developing countries, an activist, and, with his wife, Patricia, a philanthropist raising money for programs aiding teachers in Santa Fe, N.M., public schools, which are some of the most challenged in the country.