Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review: Once Upon a Lie by Michael French

Once Upon a LieOnce Upon a Lie by Michael R. French
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I began reading Once Upon a Lie, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the synopsis. The story follows the lives of two main characters—Alex, daughter of a successful attorney and his socialite wife, and Jaleel, an intelligent African-American male born to two working class parents. The novel begins in present day, with the voice of an adult Alex apprehensively awaiting a meeting with her mother, and then in the next chapter, takes the reader back to a young Jaleel, and the life he lives in Peartree, Texas with his two parents before their unexpected deaths.

The novel is filled with interesting characters, such as the quirky Cornelius Appleton/Dirick, who kindly offers help to Jaleel (and the many identities he must assume) after he begins life on the run. The majority of the novel is set in the 1980s, which is one of my favorite decades, so there are references to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and the life of the affluent in the Los Angeles suburbs mixed in. I found it very hard to have any sympathy for Alex’s parents, who were both entitled in different ways and seemed to have no remorse for the destruction their actions left in their wake.

As I mentioned before, Alex and Jaleel came from very different backgrounds, but were brought together in a random meeting at a lemonade stand that would have a lifelong effect on both of them. Learning how Jaleel’s brushes with the law shaped his persona and gave him a brittle, but wise, edge was one of the more intriguing parts of the book. Fans of writer and activist James Baldwin will appreciate Jaleel’s references to his work, as he becomes a writer in his own right.

Once Upon a Lie is an exploration of the secrets families keep, and the ways those secrets can tear a family apart. It’s also an examination of the country’s justice system—past and present—and how those with influence and money can manipulate that system to their advantage, while those with less means are left with only their word as a defense. These examples include the very different outcomes when both Alex’s father and Jaleel are accused of crimes. By the last half of the book I was on the edge of my seat wondering if justice would truly prevail—and in my opinion, the way the stories are wrapped up will be a great source of discussion for book clubs.

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