The premise of The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley, is very simple: we all lead lives where we’re playing different parts, and we never show people our real selves. What would happen if we told some of those deepest secrets? What if we could do it more or less anonymously?
When you start reading The Authenticity Project, you think you know who these stereotypical people are: there’s Monica, who owns the local coffee shop and is kind of uptight, there’s Julian, the dissipated once famous artist who’s all by himself now, there’s Hazard, the prototypical high rolling finance guy who spends his days and nights drinking and snorting cocaine and sleeping with anyone who’ll have him, there’s Riley, the sweet Australian surfer, there’s Alice, the young mother who’s created an idealized version of her life on Instagram but is having a lot of trouble dealing with actual parenthood.
Julian leaves a notebook in the coffee shop he frequents, in which he wrote an introduction, asking what would happen if people told the truth about their lives, the one unknown truth that would make sense of what they’re really all about, and then demonstrated what kind of truth that would be by writing about his own life, leaving plenty of room for other people to write their truths as well. Everybody does, one at a time, finding the book and adding their truths to it.
One of the cool things the author does is to show you the character writing in the book, but not showing you what they’re writing until you’re in the point of view of another character reading the book, so you not only get the one character’s secret, you get to see how the next character reacts to that secret.
At first, the secrets written in the book seem pretty obvious: the workaholic wants a family, the artist is lonely after the death of his unappreciated wife, the addict realizes he’s an addict, etc. The book works because, just as the original stereotypes don’t give you the whole person, the secrets they write about themselves don’t give you the whole person either. Each character is more than they originally seem, and more than they think they are, and we get to watch them in action and see them in full.
This is not a book that works by surprising the reader. There are one or two slight plot twists, but you can guess most of the major developments long in advance. And that’s all right. It’s not a book about plot as much as it is about characters, about ordinary seeming people finding and creating a community, revealing to themselves and each other what kind of people they really are. I found them all ultimately lovable, and cared about what happened to them and whether they would get their happy endings they deserved.
If you want a good-hearted read, with humor and charm, definitely check out The Authenticity Project.