Monday, December 7, 2015
Book Review: The Secrets We Left Behind
There’s been a subtle shift in the women’s fiction genre over the past few years; a shift from stories solely about relationships to tales incorporating mystery and suspense. Perhaps the biggest example of this is Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, a New York Times bestseller. Women’s fiction suspense novels differ from the usual suspense novels as they generally entail how secrets and lies affect relationships, rather than how cryptic codes lead to lots of dead bodies. But they are just as engrossing as other types of thrillers.
More secrets are offered by Susan Elliott Wright, in her second novel, The Secrets We Left Behind. A grandmother with a comfortable life, a devoted husband and a solid career has only one worry: Her daughter’s post-partum depression. But one day she gets a phone call that changes everything – her daughter’s father is dying and he wants them to confess everything. Even if it means going to jail for what they did.
In 1976, Jo was a seventeen-year-old British girl who just lost her mother to alcoholism. With her father long dead, she ends up squatting with Eve and Scott, a couple who takes her in and teaches her how to get by “off the grid,” making jewelry out of sea shells and taking waitress jobs under the table. It’s as idyllic as it can be …
So how does Jo end up in 2010, a young grandmother with a successful life and a huge secret? The narrative goes back and forth between those two years, and the 2010 timeline quickly reveals that Scott is the father of Jo’s daughter Hannah. The 2010 narrative is a bit more ominous, with Scott’s threats hanging over Jo’s head. The book itself is a bit slow-paced, especially in the beginning. But the writing is strong, and Jo – with her hard life and fierce loyalty to Eve – is easy to root for. By the time the book ends, readers could forgive her for just about anything. But can her family?
Most readers will be able to figure out rather early on what Jo’s secret is, and the question becomes more of a how and a why rather than a what. However, there is a neat sleigh-of-hand that I was not expecting, and the only hint it was coming was that the 1976 portion was written in third person and the 2010 in first person. And Wright does leave some unanswered questions; while she attempts to wrap up the most important things, I still had some practical and logistical questions in my head after “The End.”
More broadly, though, the book brings up questions that resonate with anyone who has done a thing or two in her past she’s not especially proud of. How much of our pasts are we allowed to hide? Are our spouses and children entitled to know everything about us? And what type of secret is too huge to forgive?
Despite its slow beginning and languid pace, The Secrets We Left Behind is a captivating story. Elliott Wright’s debut novel, The Things We Never Said, seems like a similar read, and I’ll be looking that one up next.
Thanks to David Ratner Publicity for the book in exchange for an honest review.