Book Review: The Fine Art of Truth or Dare plus Giveaway

11698943The Fine Art of Truth or Dare
by Melissa Jensen
Speak/ February 16, 2012
380 pages
Source: Purchased


Ella is nearly invisible at the Willing School, and that’s just fine by her. Still, it’s hard being a nobody and having a crush on the biggest somebody in the school: Alex Bainbridge. Especially when he is her French tutor, and lessons have started becoming, well, certainly more interesting than French ever has been before. (Taken from Goodreads.)

Opening Line
It was Day Three, Freshman Year, and I was a little bit lost in the school library, looking for a bathroom that wasn’t full of blindingly shiny sophomores checking their lip gloss.
My Take On It
    The tag line for The Fine Art of Truth or Dare is Pretty in Pink meets Anna and the French Kiss, and I’ll admit, it definitely helped sell me on the book. As a child of the 8o’s (yes, I do have my very own John Hughes dvd collection) and a lover of all things Etienne St. Clair (name me one person who didn’t love him or Anna and the French Kiss) I was intrigued and more than willing to give TFAoToD a shot. Plus there are art references my friends, so of course that’s a big bonus in my estimation. And while I saw many similarities with Pretty in Pink (and Sixteen Candles) and not so many similarities to Anna and the French Kiss, I did enjoy TFAoToD.  Here’s why:
  • Fiorella Marino-  I liked Ella, on the whole I found her to be smart, witty, and endearing. I thought she was the perfect combination of normal but also slightly offbeat, left of center teenage girl. As a former teenage girl myself, I totally related to her seemingly hopeless crush on a boy who is way out of her league. I love her cynical yet very funny view of The Willing School. The first chapter describing some of the “Willing Girls”  from days past (Gertrude Wharton- ‘Willing Oral Girl of the Year’  and the award for ‘Willing Service to the Soldiers of the Great War’) was hilarious so I liked Ella’s voice from the start. Ella and her circle of friends are basically the social outcasts of the school and here’s why: 1) Ella’s from a working class family, her parents own a family run Italian restaurant, so no summer vacations in France for her 2) she’s into art, which technically isn’t cool until college. When I was in school, art kids ranked just above band kids in the social pecking order 3) and this is probably the big one, the one that seems to clench it for Ella: she’s got a large burn scar covering her right shoulder and extending to parts of her chest and lower neck. The scar was from a horrible accident when Ella was just seven, so she has been living with it nearly all her life. The scar, more than anything, keeps Ella from holding her head high and standing up for herself when some of the more vicious students at the school ignore or worse, ridicule her.
  • I liked Ella’s friends- That would be Frankie and Sadie. Frankie is sort of your stereotypical gay BFF (think Ricky from My So Called Life but much, much hotter. Like Korean fashion model hot.) He’s also lower income so he shares many of the same views on money as Ella. He’s funny, fabulous, and tells it like it is. Sometimes Frankie REALLY tells it like it us, to the point of harshness, but his heart is always in the right place. He’s there to look out for his girl Ella and of her two friends, Frankie is definitely the stronger influence (and personality.) The other member of the trio is Sadie. Sadie is wealthy, but what keeps her from rising to a higher social status at the school is her shyness and utter lack of self confidence, aggravated by her weight and appearance obsessed mother. Sadie for the most part is like a little mouse, until she opens her mouth and sings. Not at school,  but karaoke at their favorite hangout. Sadie has the voice of a siren, and when she is onstage she is utterly mesmerizing. Once she’s offstage, she’s a mouse again. She’s supportive of Ella too, but needs Ella’s support even more. I think she’s an interesting character and would like to have learned a little more about her. And I should also include Daniel. He’s not really part of the group, but he does make a few memorable appearances in the book. Daniel is Frankie’s twin brother,  but he doesn’t attend their private school (he’s in public school), he’s also beautiful and straight (and a player) and he’s reputed to be a gang member. Oh, and he’s in a band. So he would qualify as the hot bad boy type (which is probably why I love him and wish there was a book just about Daniel.)
  • Ella’s awesome Italian family- This is, without a doubt, my favorite aspect of the book. Seriously. Without the inclusion of Ella’s family, specifically her Nonna and her dad, this book wouldn’t be near as enchanting, and I don’t think I would love it as much. Her family is very much like the one in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Loud, brash, and loving. I’m Italian, and though my family wasn’t like this one, I can totally relate and see parts of my own family echoed in Ella’s. I love Melissa Jensen’s humorous writing and clever dialogue, and in my opinion, the passages featuring Ella’s family are the star’s of the show. Those characters are so wonderfully written that I felt like I was reading about my own dad or grandmother. I loved it.
 According to mom, I was a perfectly beautiful little shrimp. According to everyone, Nonna went ballistic whenever someone called me a beautiful baby. “Malocchio, malocchio” she spat at doctors, nurses, and visiting friends, hurrying to counteract their well-meant compliment (and, apparently, evil-eye curse), by waving the protective corno- pinkie and pointer up, other fingers folded- over my tiny head. “Like a wrinkled Ozzie Osbourne in a dress,” Mom mutters.
And the love that her family feels for her is so wonderful to read, gosh, it’s so refreshing to read about a healthy family relationship for a change, you know?
       Mom and Nonna don’t agree on much, well, they are both completely convinced that they come first with Dad. And they love me with the same combination of high hopes and fierce, if misguided, helpfulness, leaning on me like mismatched bookends.
     Mom shoves from her side: “Such a diamond in the rough! Everyone can see that, Gorgeous bones. Bright as anything, absolutely endless potential, just needs some work…” She speaks in Realtor-ese. I don’t think she can help it. 
      Nonna shoves from her side: “Bellissima! Bella bella Fiorella. No, no, no purple! Always green, like the spring…” She spend a lot of time telling me how bella I am. Apparently it’s okay now that the damage has been done. She puts all of her ninety-odd pounds behind the word, so it always sounds kind of like she’s spitting, cursing the curse of the curse. That’s Nonna. I think maybe she believes that if she says it often enough and with enough force, it’ll come true. Or I’ll buy it, like the emperor’s clothes.

I absolutely love that passage. It illustrates beautifully not only how Ella feels about herself in terms of her scar (Apparently it’s okay now that the damage has been done) but also gives the most lovely analogy of the two matriarchal figures of the family, and their unwavering belief in the beauty and potential of Ella (And they love me with the same combination of high hopes and fierce, if misguided, helpfulness, leaning on me like mismatched bookends.)  A pair of mismatched bookends, supporting her on both sides, holding her up and letting her know with absolute clarity that no matter what life throws her way, Ella’s family will be there for her.

  • The John Hughes 8o’s movie references- and there were a TON of them! So many in fact that I wrote them all down in list formation to make a count! I won’t type up the list now but here are some of the highlights: obvious comparison’s to both Pretty in Pink’s Andy and Blaine, as well as Steph and Bennie (remember the James Spader character and his obnoxious,  shallow girlfriend?), and comparison’s to Sixteen Candles’  Samantha and Jake. And Ella’s older sister is getting married, and garnering much of the families attention because of it, just like Sam’s sister Jenny is getting married (remember, to the oily bohunk:) Perhaps my very favorite similarity between the John Hughes’ classics and TFAoToD  is Ella’s very touching relationship with her dad. There is a scene in Sixteen Candles where Sam and  her Dad have a heart to heart about boys (remember, Sam’s dad comes in to apologize for forgetting her birthday) well we have a scene like that between Ella and her dad as well. Ella is home “sick” and her dad comes in with soup.
“Yeah, partly.”
“Boyfriend?” His heavy eyebrows drew together at that one. 
I quickly assured him, “No.”
“Ah. But you want him to be.”
“And he– blind, stupid, and probably nutty as a squirrel–doesn’t feel the same way.”
   I smiled at that little parental outrage. “No. Maybe. I’ don’t know. That’s the problem. I…can’t trust what I think I know anymore.”
   Dad didn’t say anything for a few seconds, just rocked a little in his seat. Then, “You remember when you used to want me to take you to the museum every single Sunday?”
   I smiled again. “You always wanted to look at the Dutch still life paintings.”
   “What can I say? I like a good plate of food.’
   “I hated the ones with the dead rabbits.”
   “Not my favorites , either, hon. But you really loved that room with all the kooky stuff. The bicycle wheel stuck in a stool, the urinal.”
    “The Marcel Duchamp room. Wow. I haven’t been there in ages.’ I took a sip of the minestrone. It was perfect. 
    “Yeah, and that really famous painting. You know, the one you used to stand in front of for the longest time.”
    “Nude Descending a Staircase.”
    “That’s the one. I never saw it, the nude. Or the staircase, either. I saw a bunch of brown shapes in a row. But you…you looked and looked, every time we were there, and made me read the title out loud. Then, one day, you grabbed my hand. I dunno, you were maybe six. Like this–” He placed his own palm flat in the air at waist level. “Tiny, but man, you had a grip on you.’ I see it Daddy! I see the nude depending on the stairs!’…. 
      “Anyway, here’s the point…” 
      ” You my fantastic little shrimp, knew what was in front of you. Maybe it wasn’t obvious, but you hung in there until it all got clear in your mind and in front of your eyes.”
       He slapped his knees and stood up. “That was my point. But what do I know about it? I like pictures of peaches, that look like peaches.” He took the bowl and spoon from me. “Okay?”
     ” I don’t mean the soup, hon.”
     “I know.”
     “So.” He picked up the tray and headed for the door. “You digest.”
    “You don’t mean the soup.”
    “See? You know what you think you know.”
    He left chocolate biscotti for my dessert.
Isn’t that freaking lovely? I think so. Ella’s old man is a prize.
All of these things about TFAoToD, I loved. They made for a really touching story. But have you noticed that there is something notably absent from that bullet list? What about the love interest?? Well, this is where things went a little south for me. Alex Bainbridge. I like Alex well enough. I understand his character. He’s wealthy, privileged, and good looking. He hangs with a rather petty and narcissistic crowd, but he is different. He’s deeper. He wants more. He’s not satisfied with what his parents want for him. He has some secret ambitions to break free of the life they’ve laid out for him. He’s got the seemingly perfect girlfriend, but there is just something about Ella, something that he begins to see in her after they  get to know each other better, i.e., when he starts tutoring her in French. He’s a classic type, just like Blaine in  Pretty in Pink and kind of like Jake in Sixteen Candles. But while I was able to recognize those similarities, I just felt there was something lacking in the romance department between Ella and Alex. I know she’s crushing on him and has been from the start, and I like that he seems to be recognizing some of her awesomeness as they get to know each other better, but I just didn’t get those swoony feelings with the two of them that I was hoping for. I have some other issues with the two of them, but I don’t want to spoil for those who have yet to read the book so I’ll just say there is a question posed to Ella by Daniel early on in the book. Daniel asks Ella what question should everyone ask themselves before getting involved with someone. Ella answers, but then comes back to the question at the end of the book and answers again, and differently. She answers ” Does he bring out the best in me?” And after reading the book, I’m not sure I believe that the Ella and Alex do that for each other. You’ll have to read for yourself and judge whether my opinion is justified or not. So for me, the romance factor in the book wasn’t all that I hoped for.
   There is another aspect to this book that I haven’t touched on yet either. And again, that is because it was a part of the book that just didn’t work for me, unfortunately. This would be Ella’s “relationship” with the dead artist Edward Willing. Ella has a fascination with Willing, a lesser known early 20th century artist, and she has become something of an expert on his life since attending The Willing School. In fact she is hoping to write a thesis on Willing as a means to secure entrance into NYU’s school of art. Basically, Ella has this idealized vision of what Willing was like and as a result she has “conversations” with him regarding her life. She’s not loony or anything, she knows she’s not really conversing with a dead man, but these exchanges between her and Willing play a major role in this book. In addition there parts of the book that center around past correspondence between Willing and his wife and other people. I understand why Melissa Jensen included this in the story, Ella is able to make correlations between herself and Willing’s life, but unfortunately it just didn’t work for me. This is strange even to me, because art themes in books are often my favorite parts, but here, I found myself struggling to get through the passages with Ella and Edward. I’m not sure why this was the case exactly and it was somewhat disappointing. Had that whole arc in the story been minimized (or even left out altogether) I think the pacing and the flow of the book would’ve been much more consistent.
     Those points aside, you know what? I still really enjoyed the book. As I said, the way Melissa Jensen wrote Ella’s friends, and ESPECIALLY her family, more than made up for the other parts. I truly don’t think I have read about a more fun, entertaining, yet touching family unit in a long time. They really made this book for me!
4/5 Stars