Desert Isle Keeper
What I Thought Was True
After I DIK’d My Life Next Door by this author, I immediately went after her other books. Happily, What I Thought Was True possesses much of what I enjoyed reading that book, including a strong setting, likeable protagonists, and an intense story without teen drama. In some ways, like its respectful portrayal of a sexually experienced heroine, it may be even better. This is a great summer read for romance lovers, YA and up.
Gwen Castle’s life revolves around her family: her special needs brother Em, her divorced parents, her Portuguese fisherman grandfather, her aspiring Coast Guard cousin Nico and his girlfriend-since-elementary Vivien. They never have enough money, largely due to medical costs for Em. Gwen gets a job as a companion to an elderly wealthy summer resident in poor health to help with the bills. But she can’t seem to shake Cass Somers, the privileged swimmer and classmate whose father got him a job as the island’s yard boy as a lesson.
I liked Gwen. She feels like an authentic teenager in her flaws and mistakes, and her key strength, grit, is very endearing. Gwen works hard for herself and her family, even when they put her in the middle of some difficult choices. She has ambition, which I liked, but the author shows convincingly that her dreams have costs (wanting to go to college, for instance, means she won’t be there to help care for her brother). On the whole, Cass is less well-developed than Gwen, but that’s partly a consequence of Gwen’s being the first person narrator. Cass’s prankster past, which led him to be expelled from a private school, feels a bit more contrived, as a way to get him away from Gwen after their childhood and then back into her orbit.
I know saying a book includes a “misunderstanding” raises “Big Mis” flags in romance, but Gwen and Cass’s misunderstanding is actually serious, and led to an event in which they confused and hurt each other. The author’s reveal of that event is part of the plot of the book, so I won’t go into detail. As the story starts, Cass is sincere and dogged in his pursuit of a do-over with Gwen, who is hostile towards him. Once I learned more, it made sense both that Gwen would be prickly and Cass would be persistent. I appreciated that he occasionally snaps at her for running hot and cold on him – he feels like an authentic teenage boy, rather than a character written to be a hero. I did think he was surprisingly patient with her, and I wish they’d had a more explicit conversation about the event than they do.
As with My Life Next Door, there’s a class conflict, ethical dilemmas, and secrets, all of which feel authentic. What I Thought Was True adds the island people/summer people dynamic, setting parochial, service-industry, low-paid islanders against the affluent, worldly, and privileged vacationers. Neither is held up as flawless, which I appreciated; and I also enjoyed the fact that many characters explicitly challenged these dynamics (in a “why do people divide us into summer and island anymore?” way). The book avoids the twee cliches of a small town, especially in its economic realism. Nobody is opening up pottery studios or chocolateries in a town of one hundred permanent residents, which is a huge pet peeve of mine in contemps. A criticism of My Life Next Door also applies here, that the teens seem to have way too little technology than they should, but I do buy that the island may have intermittent service.
The secondary characters are well developed. Gwen’s parents are complex individuals; especially her father, who rises above a bitter could-have-been stereotype. The elderly lady Gwen watches and her son have a realistic conflict. Spence, a friend of Cass’s, alternates fascinatingly between awful and interesting, depending on whether we’re hearing Gwen’s first-person thoughts about him, reliving Gwen’s memories of him, or seeing and hearing what he’s doing in the present. Nico and Viv’s perfect relationship frays as Nico’s dreams of the Coast Guard Academy clash with Viv’s desire to stay on the island and take over her family business. A small criticism is that although Cass’s family conflict is central to his character issues, the family itself never appears “on stage,” and that lessens the impact.
Now, let’s talk sex. Sex, and what it means to have physical sex versus sex that engages love and emotions, are central to the development of Gwen and Cass’s relationship. I don’t want to tell too much because that gets spoilery, but basically, Gwen is sexually experienced, and Cass is less so. Working through that imbalance, and what the past means to each of them, provides most of the conflict in their relationship. Although she hasn’t had as many partners as people think, one character does refer to her as a “swim team tradition.” I appreciate that Gwen’s past is neither judged by the author nor written in such a way as to evade giving Gwen agency for the sex she’s had. It’s interesting to see what that means to her, Cass, and us as readers. I ding the book slightly for not addressing an issue from Gwen’s past as thoroughly as it might have.
Huntley Fitzpatrick is going from strength to strength, and I’m happy to be along for the ride. Two DIKs in a row from me for this author, and I still have another book in her backlist!