Waterstone’s Book of the Month June 2020: The Truants by Kate Weinberg

This year I am reading all of Waterstone’s ‘Fiction Book of the Month’ picks, this book was chosen for the month of June.

‘The Truants’ by Kate Weinberg is listed as a mystery novel and was Waterstone’s ‘Fiction Book of The Month’ for June. It currently has an average rating of 3.51 on Goodreads, and I awarded it 3 stars.

The book follows Jess Walker’s journey to university and the enigmatic group of friends she makes there. With her friends she begins to explore a new version of herself, whilst also hoping to live up to her notorious and brilliant lecturer’s expectations. Yet the dynamic between her friends and lecturer brings forth love, secrets and a tragedy they are forced to share, and makes Jess question whether an extraordinary life is worth it.

‘Because in solving something, in pinning it down,in reducing it to one reality, something of the magic is lost.’ 

I was initially really excited to pick this one up as I saw it being sold as a crossover between ‘The Secret History’ and Agatha Christie, and who wouldn’t want to read a book that promised that! Unfortunately, I don’t think this book lives up to the expectation that premise holds. Whilst this was interesting and I was certainly entertained for the whole book, I don’t think the novel brings forth any new ideas or concepts in it’s narrative, and I found it pushed certain ideas too much -as if Weinberg was almost begging for us to believe in them. Ultimately the book’s hamartia is that the narrative sets such a high expectation that the characters and plot aren’t able to live up to it.

The main character is a young woman called Jess Walker, who chooses her university solely on the idea that she can sit in a class taught by Lorna, a woman whose book she became obsessed with over Christmas. Jess felt a little pedestrian to me, I believe she was left largely as a blank slate to emphasise she was a young adult trying to find her identity – as many do in university. However this was juxtaposed with how hard the author tried to persuade the reader she wasn’t normal. Several ‘extra-ordinary’ characters like Alec and Lorna in the novel say she’s different and that she reminded them both of a girl called Sybil, who was meant to be different and extra-ordinary too, but I don’t really think these claims were back up by what we learnt of Sybil. It felt like Weinberg wanted to create memorable characters, and wanted to remind us constantly that she did – but I’m not sure she achieved that with all her characters; I would argue Georgie, Alec and Lorna were memorable in their own ways, but not the character she wanted to be most memorable: Jess.

However, Weinberg did create an interesting group of characters within the novel. Whilst I think she tried to push the notion that Jess was ‘special’ too hard, she did create a diverse and notable group of friends that were distinct from each other. Alec and Georgie were obviously the most interesting of the four group of friends, and I enjoyed reading them and trying to figure out their dynamic. Also, I really liked Jess and Georgie’s dynamic as there was a great focus on women friendship in the novel, and how outside forces (often men) can often interfere with that. Yet, none of them were as extra-ordinary as Weinberg claimed there were. Whilst many of them had interesting quirks or habits, they weren’t as mysterious or illusive as the narrative tried to claim they were. It felt like every character suffered from the age old problem of telling rather showing, we were told the characters were special, but we rarely shown how they special.

Whilst I found the characters to be a little mundane, I did really enjoy the connection this book had to Agatha Christie. Whilst I haven’t read a lot of Christie’s work, I am interested in reading more of her novels, and it was great to learn about her and how her work was inspired and created in this novel. I do think at times the connection Weinberg was trying to make between her novel and Christie’s was pushed a little too hard, but it still was an interesting faucet of the narrative and one that captured my intrigue.

There was also a great look into our lives and the consequences of the way we lead them. The book appeared to argue that one can only lead an extraordinary life if we are selfish, and disregard others and society’s norms to explore what we truly want to.Whilst I think there is some truth to that, and it certainly was supported by mentions of how artists often disregard others and do what they want and produce brilliant art because of this, it felt a little too one sided. I’m sure there are people in the world who are kind, generous and empathetic who lead extraordinary lives without constantly being selfish or hurting others.

One of my greatest issues with the book was the plot, because whilst I was interested in it and entertained for most of the novel, I found the ending to be disappointing. As there were so many mentions of Agatha Christie I was expecting a whodunit novel, but we didn’t get that. Whilst this is a mystery and there are secrets, the why they unfold is lacklustre and the ‘solution’ to the mystery is boring. It’s not a whodunit, and whilst that’s more reflective of the narrative Weinberg was pushing – the greatest part of mystery and the chase for answers is the mystery – it was disappointing as a reader. The reason whodunits were and still are popular to this day is because it gives us both mystery and answer, we get the chase, a satisfying ending and the mystery of who we could have missed all the clues as a reader, but you don’t get that with this book. Instead we got a mystery on top of a mystery, a lacklustre ‘chase’, disappointing answers, and then vague answers that felt cobbled together because the author wasn’t sure what the answer should be regarding Alec. There was no intriguing mystery, instead there was some half-baked answer the author couldn’t commit to, and that’s not enough for a book about mystery and secrets.

Overall this wasn’t bad in any sense, but it’s not exceptional either. Whilst the characters and plot aren’t bad necessarily, they don’t live up to the high expectations set on them by the narrative, and ultimately that is the book’s undoing. I’m not sure who I would recommend this to as I think anyone who enjoyed ‘The Secret History’ will find this underwhelming, but this sub-section of the fiction genre is also quite niche so I’m not sure I would recommend this to just anyone either.

The Series:

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