Attraction is illogical and is not always reasonable or controllable. Sometimes we encounter people who, for inexplicable reasons, create a sort of stirring in our gut, one that gets us excited and, sometimes, makes us a little crazy. When you find someone who makes you feel like the only person in the room, who generates a flutter of butterflies deep within you every time they say your name or their name appears on your phone, it’s sometimes hard to let them go. Most people who date have met that person, the person they clung to a little too long and accepted treatment that, if applied to a friend, they would never stand for. In the realm of romance, if the story is not about finding Mr. Right, it’s a story of the one who got away. That high school boyfriend who she lost because they both pursued different goals or the guy who she met but the timing was wrong. The stream of romances based on the one who got away is prolific. However, less time is spent on the one who should have gotten away, who we should have let go of with some force but lingered in our lives for far too long. Carola Lovering’s Tell Me Lies tells the tale of the one who lingered, who made us feel special and whole only to have us spend hours staring at a blank phone, wondering why their feelings faded, where things went so wrong.
Tell Me Lies tells the story of Lucy, a college freshman who falls for Stephen DeMarco, a wholly charming but otherwise unremarkable older guy. Lucy arrives at college wide-eyed and ready for a new beginning and soon falls into a pattern of drug use, alcohol consumption, and eating problems. The thing I will say upfront about this story is that neither Lucy nor Stephen are very likable. Lucy is, obviously, more likable than Stephen, but her internal judgment of her peers and her obsession with something her mother did make her a bit … cold. The story alternates between Lucy and Stephen’s perspective, which makes for a simultaneously addicting and infuriating read. The alternating viewpoints illustrate how a single exchange between the wrong guy and the nice girl can be so completely misconstrued by each person. While Stephen is calculating and planned, Lucy is charmed and forgiving. I try to resist spoilers in my reviews, but I think this book warrants at least one. If you don’t want the spoiler, skip the following paragraph.
*Lovering writes Stephen’s character as the ultimate f*** boy. He is charming, calculated, averse to commitment despite always having a girlfriend, and he wants to ensure he has a steady stream of women coming and going from his bed. Then she reveals he’s a sociopath, unable to feel remorse or guilt. I think this weakens the book unless her overall premise is that all men between the ages of eighteen and thirty are sociopaths, which is a premise I may be able to get behind given the behavior I’ve witnessed (sarcasm, don’t worry). Honestly, though, I’ve seen a few of my friends deal with behavior that Stephen does regularly. Tell Me Lies feels uncomfortably relatable and we all have a Stephen. I guess that’s why I don’t love the sociopath thread. Men behave this way, and sure some may feel worse about it than others, but it’s far too common to drop “he’s a sociopath, that’s why he sucks.” It belittles the fact that women deal with this behavior regularly.*
We’ve all encountered the guy who is charming and cute and can pretty much rely on being charming and cute. He’s the guy whose presence in a room is felt but also has a knack for making your encounters feel intimate. He’s the guy who texts you sweet things, only to suddenly disappear from the ether, igniting a series of desperate texts and phone calls. Then he makes you feel clingy and crazy for caring when, up until this point, he’s given you every sign that the feeling is mutual. Still, I felt bad for Lucy because she was in so deep. She truly believed that everything, eventually, would work out. Stephen’s behavior, however, makes for unsustainable relationships because they always lack trust. He pursues other girls while dating women and the other girls fall for him, but once they get him, they can’t possibly trust him as they shift from “other woman” to “girlfriend.” Yet, attraction is illogical. We can’t rationalize it and when we find attraction that is so strong it makes us operate on a plane outside of our normal moral code, we become desperate to make it work even if that means accepting trash behavior.
My reaction to this book was visceral. I shook my head, cringed, empathized, and remembered one night in high school when my boyfriend at the time and I were supposed to hang out and he just never texted me back. I texted him a few times asking for updates. His read receipts were on (THE WORST) and he just would not respond. Then he texted me the next day that his phone had died, and he was sorry, lets hangout that day instead. I’m a smart woman, and yet, I immediately thought “it’s fine” even though I knew he was lying. That relationship eventually ended and, well, it was absolutely for the best. Did I stay too long? Yes. Do I think back on it now and realize I forgave terrible treatment at times? Yes. What irritated me most about Stephen was he gave Lucy so much hope and then acted like she was completely out of line for loving him so much.
Lucy and Stephen have intense chemistry and he’s certainly the guy who her friends can sense is bad news, but they also understand she won’t listen to them about him. Lucy and Stephen’s dynamic drives the story and what Lovering does well is she creates, through narrative, the tension Lucy feels waiting for him. Even though I didn’t love Lucy, I held out hope he wouldn’t royally screw her over. I thought, “maybe he’ll let her down easy, he won’t do what he’s done to the three women who preceded her.” That kind of tension is difficult to create when you are simultaneously getting Stephen’s cold, measured, disgusting thoughts.
There were two other components to the story that I think worked but also could have been absent without sacrificing the story. First, Lucy is really angry with her mom for something her mom did while Lucy was in high school. When the reveal comes, it seems almost hypocritical she’s mad. I think this component of the story highlights that we often engage in behavior we would ridicule and hate if we saw someone else do it. We do it anyway because we are too infatuated with someone to stop it. The resolution of the mom conflict felt a little anticlimactic, but I also think it emphasizes that outsiders do not see the interiority of relationships. What we think we know may very well be wrong. Second, there is a crossover between Lucy’s and Stephen’s pasts that felt unnecessary. I believe that the crossover is meant to show how horrible he is at his core, but I don’t think the story would lose anything without it. It was interesting and didn’t make me enjoy the story any less, but I felt it was superfluous.
The crux of this story is the treatment people accept when they have it really bad for the wrong person. I remember the trembling, sobbing, phone-obsessed person I was in former relationships, and it’s embarrassing but also makes Lucy so relatable. We think we can’t possibly live without someone until we do. There’s a shift, internal and sudden, where the person we thought was our everything becomes a faded memory.
The toxicity in this novel is well executed and the writing is great. The story reads quickly, and I couldn’t put it down. I just wanted to know more. At 370 pages, I thought it would take me longer to finish, but I blew through it at a steady clip. It’s triggering for eating disorders, depression, toxic relationships, manipulation, etc., but I highly recommend it if you’ve ever loved the wrong person.