Two days ago, I just happened to come across this gem while browsing on goodreads.com. The moment I saw “Tuscaloosa” in the description (the very town in which I live) I hopped on the nook and downloaded it. Less than 24 hours later, I was finished, I just couldn’t put it down.
What They Always Tell Us is the story of two high school aged brothers, Alex and James, told in alternating chapters and spans just under a year of their lives. James is a senior who thinks of almost nothing but graduating and moving out of this hick town as he feels he has begun to lose touch with everyone around him. Alex is a junior and is dealing with the consequences of a failed suicide attempt the summer before the book begins.
Both brothers feel they have grown apart, that there is a massive chasm between them since Alex’s attempt to take his own life. James is still the popular athlete, but Alex has been shunned by everyone he thought were his friends. It’s only after Alex bonds with one of James’s friends, Nathen, that things begin to change. He starts running with Nathen and makes it onto the cross country team and his depression lifts little-by-little and when the two discover their attraction to each other, Alex feels like an entirely new person.
Using the city of Tuscaloosa as a backdrop to the story was like a revelation to me. Every chapter there would be mention of familiar places and situations. One quote in particular rings very true, as I have personal experience in the situation:
Reputations. They are so damn important, Alex thinks, especially in this town, where people’s secrets are like well-guarded jewels. No one wants to be known as an adulterer or a crook or a mental case. Or a homo, for that matter.
Wilson hit the nail on the head. In a place like Tuscaloosa, everyone’s business is everyone else’s. Even my forced outing spread like fire, and I’m no one of consequence.
I loved this book, not only because it’s a fantastic tale about growing up and growing apart, but it’s so hopeful in its message. It feels like, for all of us who have ever felt trapped here, that someone actually made it out. They survived, became something and reported back to the rest of us.
I recommend everyone, whether you grew up here as well or can’t even find Alabama on a map, read this and take something meaningful away from it.