Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Review: The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

So very often we hide parts of ourselves, the unhappy parts, the unsavory parts, the hard, struggling parts. This has probably always been true but seems to be accentuated by our social media society. We only post our highlights reel. If we can get the lighting correct and crop the messes of real life out, our curated life looks enviable and aspirational. But behind the scenes, we're all human with all the attendant ups and downs of real life. So what would happen if we told the truth about our lives? Telling the truth is exactly what happens in Clare Pooley's debut novel, The Authenticity Project.

Monica, owner of Monica's Cafe, finds a plain green journal titled The Authenticiy Project at the recently vacated table of a dapper, elderly man. She reads the first page in hopes that she can identify the owner and return it but what she discovers is an honest and open journal entry that almost eighty year old Julian Jessop, a lonely artist whose wife is gone, has written. At the end of his journal entry, he challenges whoever finds the journal to add their own truth to the pages and pass it along if they would like to. So Monica, a control freak for whom the cafe is her entire life, does so, admitting her sorrow at the lack of a husband and child in her life. She leaves the journal at the bar across the street where it is picked up by a deeply unhappy man named Hazard. Hazard surprises himself by not only furthering Monica's plan to engage Julian in life by getting him to teach art classes at the cafe, but also by reading, contributing to the journal, and passing it along to an easy going Australian named Riley, who he's vetted as a friend for Julian and as a potential lover for Monica and is headed to London from the Pacific Island where Hazard has landed to try and beat his addiction and get a handle on his life. These characters, with the addition of Monica's barista Benji, his boyfriend Baz, and Alice, a local, frazzled, mommy Instagrammer whose life is anything but picture perfect all come together through the journal and the art classes as they learn to bare their true selves to others, to chase their own happiness, to offer kindness, and to be authentic in the world.

The novel is definitely a feel good story. It's a story of love and friendship and claiming the life you want. The conceit of the journal passing from hand to hand and connecting disparate people is a sweet one. Each of the characters has quirks and flaws that make them feel real. This also makes them not always terribly likable and sometimes they come across as a bit too stereotypical. The short chapters are centered on different characters, moving the story along as they interact together but also when they are at a far remove but thinking of the others. Of course, the path to happiness isn't smooth. The novel's conflict is a little reminiscent of a romance novel and there is an interesting twist in one character's "authentic" story. The final scene is predictable but still the right ending. This is a big hearted and charming novel, perhaps perfect for the year we've all been having.

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