Barbara Forte Abate
Dog Ear Publishing, 2010
The Secret of Lies starts in the intriguing prologue where the reader joins the mysterious storyteller as she stealthily leaves a sleeping man in the dead of night and drives toward the sea; where her haunted memories began.
Then Abate opens her story fifteen years earlier and we join the teen-aged storyteller, who we learn is named Stevie, on the beach with her sister Eleanor, two years older. There is awareness of a long, important story being told through the memories of a woman who must revisit teen-age memories to heal her adult life. Innocent teen-age banter and interests while Stevie and Eleanor spend the summer with their childless aunt and uncle become the setting of the usual interest in music and local boys.
The naive Stevie watches the disturbed marriage of her aunt and uncle, and the ever more secretive Eleanor, while she becomes friends with a local boy who is deaf. Abate walks the fine line of telling a story from the memory of an escaping woman leaving a man sleeping, and of her own unknowing teen-age self who could not or would not see the ever more threatening danger in Eleanor’s life.
The tone sways like a sea’s waves between the recitation of fact and action against an emotional depth that reads like islands of prose from an aching, adult heart looking back. The weather was almost an additional character as it gave Stevie a secure handle to hold and see her through a painful memory before continuing. There was also a cross-current between an understandably naive Stevie who would not face her sister’s deepening troubles, with one who blurted surprisingly insightful observations like, “And is this … the same ratfink who’s dolling up his incredibly gullible niece for a cocktail party just because he knows how much it’ll annoy his wife?”
Then, of course, the summer ends in tragedy and life continues, as it always does. It is in this second story of living with results that Stevie learns, regrets, grieves, and continues on with the detritus of deeds done and undone. Her powers of observation continue to sustain and haunt her as she adjusts to a forever changed family and personal life that she knows holds a broken, unsteady self.
The Secret of Lies can be read for pure story. There’s enough in the action and tone to sweep a reader from start to finish in one more human drama that can be left behind when finished. But I think Abate’s dramatic prologue invites a reader to consider the deeper meaning of facing a life in pain with whatever gifts we have of people who remain or come into our life unaware of history, giving us the power to look at ourselves in new contexts.
The title of this book is very strong, and yet your critique of it doesn’t really reveal enough to understand whether it would be worth while reading the book. Was this ‘life of pain’ that you mentioned, really necessary? And what was the pain? Did the experiences of the heroine add anything to her understanding of life?
At times I’ve struggled with how much of a story to reveal when reviewing. I don’t want to give the whole story away, but you’re right, I made it ambiguous. I’m not sure what you mean by the life of pain being necessary or not. My own opinion is a life of pain is seldom necessary though we can always feel a pain remembering actions taken or not taken, which is what this story pointed out. I think her description of what happened and her later assessment and realization of the true facts she had overlooked certainly added to her understanding of life. Thanks for writing ShimonZ! It’s good exercise to go back and try and figure out why something was written and if it still stands.
Re ‘life of pain’, if she had been blinded, or had gotten some terrible incurable disease that she had to live with for the rest of her life, then the pain was a necessary ingredient of her life. But if she was insulted by some act of her uncle or aunt, then the pain would be an extension of her own personality and reflect her inability to overcome adversity.
Hi Shimon, Life of pain was written in the context of the book and not a full biography, so it was (or should have been) a learning experience that hurts and certainly changes life, but is not the only definition of it. The warning signs she overlooked resulted in her sister’s death, but that also should be an adversity to overcome (or I believe “accept” rather than overcome), as should incurable disease. Thanks for making me think. I’ve got a radio interview next week on grief (nothing to do with this book) I’m trying to prepare for, and you are helping.