Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves (Talley)

AUTHOR: Robin Talley
SERIES: none
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Teen
PUBLICATION DATE: Sept. 30, 2014
ISBN: 9780373211333
PAGES: 304
SOURCE: publisher’s ARC
GENRE: historical fiction

SUMMARY: On the first day of her senior year, Sarah Dunbar faces hatred, scorn, and racism when she and eight other African-American students enroll at the all-white Jefferson High School in Davisburg, Virginia in 1959. Linda Hairston, a pretty, popular white girl, at first hates the new black students, but when she is assigned to work with Sarah on a French project, she begins to see the other side of the school desegregation controversy.

IF THIS BOOK WERE FOOD, IT WOULD BE: peanut butter fudge–the rich storyline will give readers lots to chew on; take small bites and enjoy

WHAT I LIKED: So many things! First off, I have a personal connection with this author and this story. Author Robin Talley and I grew up in the same hometown and lived there (Roanoke, VA) around the same time. The story is set in a fictional town in Virginia, but there was a Jefferson High School in Roanoke that closed before I was born. It had been there for 50 years, so it was around for the desegregation movement. The old JHS building has been converted into a community center, but what a cool history that building has!

So I knew going in that I was going to at least identify heavily with the setting. But there were so many other things I loved about this book! I love the alternating viewpoints between Sarah and Linda. I love the authentic dialogue and Talley’s attention to detail. I love the girls’ strength, even though they come from two very different worlds. I love the way the chapter titles are the lies that Sarah and Linda tell themselves in order to get themselves through the day. I love the way Judy’s port wine stain marks her as an outsider, forever setting her apart from her white peers.

And the writing! This is Talley’s debut novel, and I hope to see more from her in the future. I can’t think of a time I’ve seen an author who so clearly cares about her characters. It’s almost like Talley is an artist painting every single detail–hair and skin and eyes and lines–of someone she loves. Talley takes her time establishing the girls’ families, hopes, fears, appearance, social life, strengths, and weaknesses. The dialogue is so authentic, I can almost see the look on Sarah’s face when Linda says something Sarah doesn’t agree with. I feel like I really know these girls, that the characters in this story could actually live in my neighborhood or be students at my school.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE: For all my gushing (and it does sound a lot like gushing!), I think Talley took too big a bite of the issue pie. Of course, we have racism and female gender roles in the south–kind of a given considering the 1959 setting–but the addition of child abuse, spousal abuse, alcoholism, and homosexuality is just too much.

Don’t our protagonists have enough to deal with considering all the racism and sexism they face every single day? By the middle of the story, it started to feel “piled on” rather than part of the story. And I’m really so sad about that because this character-driven story doesn’t need a lot of hot-button issues to gussy it up.

In this case, less is definitely more.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Lies We Tell Ourselves is a beautifully-written, heartbreaking story of friendship and desegregation in the south. Too many social issues detract from character and plot.

STATUS IN MY LIBRARY: I don’t have it; better for high school audiences.

READALIKES: Lions of Little Rock (Levine)


  • Overall: 4/5
  • Creativity: 5/5
  • Characters: 5/5–LOVE LOVE LOVE!
  • Engrossing: 4/5
  • Writing: 5/5
  • Appeal to teens: 5/5
  • Appropriate length to tell the story: 5/5


  • Language: medium-high; frequent use of “n-word” and other racial slurs
  • Sexuality: mild-medium; homosexuality, slut-shaming, crude sexual remarks, allusions to teens having sex
  • Violence: medium; lots of crude name-calling, spousal and child abuse, brutal assault
  • Drugs/Alcohol: mild; alcoholic parent
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