The Ugly Truth by L.C. North is a mystery-thriller told entirely in the form of excerpts from newspapers, social media, and video recordings. Melanie Lange, model and businesswoman, has disappeared, leaving behind videos claiming she has been abducted and held against her will by her father, Sir Peter Lange. He refutes that Melanie is being treated at a private mental health clinic. Who is telling the truth?
The Ugly Truth is segmented into three parts. The first introduces several characters in swift succession. Not knowing any of the characters that well, I figured they were all equally capable of lying. With no clear good guys or bad guys at the start, I found it fun to switch allegiances at the drop of a hat. The beauty of The Ugly Truth’s beginning is that author L.C. North encourages a level of suspicion towards her entire cast of characters. This kept me on my toes.
A lot of big issues, including mental health, alcoholism, drug use, and post-natal depression, are sprinkled into this novel. Unfortunately, most of these aren’t developed with enough complexity to latch on substantively to the narrative or characters. The only larger theme that I think North tackled well is the destructive nature of media attention on celebrities. Protagonist Melanie Lange has been under the media's microscope since age fifteen. North’s weaving in of scathing Twitter posts and manipulative tabloid headlines skilfully captures the relentless degradation suffered by those in the public eye. Melanie’s whirlwind relationship with the media is one of the few plot threads I found compelling.
Sadly, this is where the positives in North’s novel end for me. This novel is all telling, not showing. Despite featuring plot points that should be compelling, the plot’s delivery is impeded by a flat narrative voice which is all ‘this happened, then this happened’. I wish North had further explored the tonal and language capacities associated with different text types and crafted a range of vocal colours. Secondary characters especially lacked distinctness. Pretty much all of the protagonist Melanie’s friends, lovers and co-workers sounded the same to me. This is a case of style over substance; the form is more fleshed out than the characters. I mean, is there any point in developing distinct voices to separate your characters when you know that the visual aid of margins, paragraph breaks and headings will take care of it? Hell, I would’ve even taken stereotypes if it meant there was range. Give me a diabolical villain, gossipy nanny, ditzy friend and douchebag lover any day over the deflated characters that inhabit The Ugly Truth.
This book would’ve been more compelling if North took full advantage of how truth is fickle and subjective since people recall the same event in different ways. If the author had played up the conflicting accounts more, messing with the reader’s head, the overarching mystery would’ve maintained its momentum instead of losing steam by the book's halfway point. Every obstacle and revelation was resolved too easily. The book teases the reader by hinting at scandals and falls from grace for the tortured protagonist, but in actuality, any complexity that could’ve done Melanie’s characterisation well is amputated by a fatal flaw in the secondary characters: they all like Melanie too much. She could do no wrong ever, making an absent protagonist all the more flat. With plot tension often feebly deflating, don’t hold out for at-the-edge-of-your-seat intrigue with this book. It didn’t take long for me to distance myself from the narrative and placidly watch it all unfold. For a book with the tagline, “Everyone has their own version of the story. Which one do you believe?” you don’t actually have to do much legwork.
From the narrative’s second part onwards, the mystery fizzled out. With an increasingly obvious divide between good and evil, victim and perpetrator, and truth and lies, any blossoming nuance gets pruned well before the last act. Without this ambiguity in perspectives, the novel’s entire premise of varying sides to the story, each believable, collapses. Marked by an absolute clunker of a slip of the tongue that foretells the big reveal, the halfway point of The Ugly Truth leaves you with a clean and, therefore, boring stroll to the finish line. For the third part of the narrative, the mystery takes a backseat to the tired thriller. Suspense skedaddles, and the narrative, whole and true, is finally laid bare. Unfortunately, a predictable and unimaginative plot doesn’t pay off.
The more that The Ugly Truth reveals, the less interesting it all is.