The Fine Art of Truth or Dare
(2012), a young adult contemporary novel by Melissa Jensen, follows a teenage girl who falls in love with her French tutor, and how they try to hide their relationship from their friends. Jensen’s most popular book, it received a mixed reception, and many critics suggested that the protagonists are difficult to connect to. Jensen is a full-time novelist who writes young adult romances in contemporary settings and columns for magazines. A long-time devotee of the Brontë sisters, she currently lives in Pennsylvania.
Ella Marino, a student at the Willing School, loves everything about art. Her idol is Edward Willing, the artist whom the school is named after; she thinks he’s vastly underappreciated. She spends a lot of time studying his portrait hanging in the school hall, frequently talking to it. Their one-sided conversations appear sporadically at the end of chapters, often when Ella is reflecting on some life development.
Ella doesn’t have many friends. Her two best friends are Frankie, a loud and vivacious girl, and Sadie, the sweet and quiet one. They have all accepted that they’re among the least popular kids in school. However, although Ella doesn’t usually mind being overlooked, everything changes when she develops a crush on Alex Bainbridge.
Alex is one of the most popular boys in school. He is half-French, good at everything from languages to sports, and he knows how attractive he is to the girls in his class. He has a long-term girlfriend who is mean to most other girls at school. Ella is struggling with French. When Alex is assigned as her tutor, Ella feels like it’s a dream coming true. However, as she tells her friends, she is terrified of working with him.
Ella has a large scar down one side of her body because of a fire many years ago. She is self-conscious, calling herself “Freddy Kruger” to disguise her feelings. She is worried that Alex will make fun of her or give her some other nickname. Edward’s painting serves as a comfort blanket—she can talk to him about her feelings without him passing judgment.
As Ella and Alex start working together, Alex turns out to be nothing like what she expected. He is kind, sweet, and sincere, and he is far less confident than he appears. When Ella tells Frankie and Sadie about him, they don’t believe her, because they don’t believe the popular kids can be nice people. Ella, however, wonders if Alex will be the one to shatter her own stereotypes.
The main problem is that Alex is still happy with his girlfriend. Although he flirts with Ella – she suspects she is not misinterpreting the signals – she is terrified of attracting the attention of his mean girlfriend. Comparing herself to this girl, she convinces herself that Alex would never choose her over the beautiful girlfriend he has right now.
Nevertheless, as Ella and Alex spend hours together studying French, one thing leads to another, and Alex says he has a crush on her. Ella thinks he must be joking or playing a cruel game, as she frets over her insecurities. Alex, however, isn’t joking, and they start dating in secret. Ella is afraid to tell her friends because she knows they won’t believe her, and Alex doesn’t want anyone at school knowing his business. He also has a vengeful girlfriend to worry about, and he doesn’t want her causing trouble for Ella.
The only thing Ella and Alex disagree on is Alex’s social circle. His friends are well known for bullying kids at school—including Frankie, who is a lesbian. This is another reason Ella feels that she can’t tell her friends about Alex. She doesn’t want to feel that she must choose between Alex and Frankie. However, everything comes to a head one night at a karaoke bar.
When Ella plays truth or dare with Frankie and Sadie, she is forced to question who her real friends are, and what her identity is. Not wanting to be known as a liar, she is compelled to tell them the truth about Alex. This causes friction between the friends, and in turn, Ella falls out with Alex. For a while, Alex focuses on lacrosse and his friends, while Ella mopes around talking to Edward Willing when no one is watching.
Alex eventually splits up with his girlfriend because he can’t stop thinking about Ella. He doesn’t want to be known as the guy who dates the most mean-spirited girl in school. Ella makes him question who he is and who he hopes to become. He declares how much he loves her, and Ella realizes that he truly is the sincere, nice guy she thought he was. He isn’t ashamed of her, and he doesn’t want them to date in secret. Everyone makes amends and Alex becomes part of Ella’s social circle.