Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review of Elizabeth Joy Arnold's The Book of Secrets

The Book of Secrets by Elizabeth Joy Arnold

We all keep secrets. Embarrassing little secrets that loom far larger in our own minds than they would to anyone else. Huge, life-changing secrets that would alter our perceptions and relationships forever. The secrets we choose to keep determine how we define ourselves and our life stories for those around us. Some secrets are so huge and toxic that we spend much of our lives papering over them, pretending they don't exist––until one day they burst forth, changing the direction of our lives forever. When that happens, we may find that we have suddenly been wrenched into an entirely different story from the one we had so painstakingly built for ourselves.

Chloe, only child of a hard-working single mother, treated herself for her eighth birthday by cutting school and exploring the neighborhood on her bike. At the end of an overgrown lane she found a huge yard where two beautifully dressed girls and a handsome boy were playing. Nate, Grace, and Cecilia were home-schooled, the children of a successful and wealthy fire-and-brimstone preacher, and knew no other children socially. They lived through their books, and Chloe dates her real birth to that day they first invited her into their games and lives.

As the book opens, Chloe and Nate have been married and operating their beloved rare and used bookstore in a Victorian mansion for over 20 years. Chloe muses:
"It's different from the stores that sell new books, I think, with their splashes and shouts for attention. Because here when I sit at night in the worn armchair by the fireplace, I can also hear the stories of people who've held these books. Some of the first editions must have been read by generations; I imagine women in their petticoats and men in breeches looking for escape from sadness or dreariness. The books have seen plagues and wars––back when wars were still romantic––have been read by candlelight and oil-lamp light; it's all written there in smudges and stains if you just know how to look."
Cherishing as I do several of my father's books and a few of his father's books, I fell in love with this story immediately.

Twenty years ago the couple weathered a tragedy; the murder of their two-year old son Gabriel, born several years before their marriage. Nate began publishing his successful series of children's books, whose dauntless protagonist is named Gabriel, shortly afterward. The tragedy, which could have brought them closer, sadly did not; both have maintained reticences, private spaces and thoughts where any trespass was unwelcome.

Nate goes missing one evening, leaving only a cryptic note that he had been called back suddenly to Redbridge, where they had grown up, married, and lost Gabriel. Chloe is overwhelmed by her crippling memories of the horrible incident. Nate doesn't know when he will return, but will call when he can. Several weeks ago, Nate had told her that his father Joel, who had served 25 years in prison for the murder of his only grandchild (an illegitimate child is the spawn of Satan), was being released and would go home to Cecilia, still living in the house where she had been raised. Feeling abandoned and furious, Chloe discovers Nate's journal, written in the secret code they had developed in childhood. The code can only be broken with the use of certain books. As Chloe slowly translates the entries, she begins to realize the depths of Nate's grief and the burden of the secrets he has hidden from her for so many years.

This is a transcendent, harrowing story told in prose as rich and silky as a crème brûlée in a brittle sugar cage. It is also very much a book for book lovers; a semi-mythical song of literature, loss, and love; a Neil Gaiman story for grownups. While it dragged a bit in the middle, I had become so deeply invested in Chloe's history that the dénouement, although somewhat foreshadowed, left me shaken with rage––and nowhere to put it. I literally cannot imagine coping with the staggering series of disclosures it brought to Chloe. As my daughter would say, this was a real brain worm of a book, and as soon as I recover from it I will look for more from the author.

Note: I received a free review copy of this book, and similar reviews may appear on various sites under my user names there. The Books of Secrets: A Novel was published by Bantam Books and will be released on July 2, 2013.


  1. Periphera, this book sounds scrumptious. Thanks for reviewing it. Nikki

  2. Nikki, the prose was remarkable. I'd be curious to hear from anyone who could translate the code - I didn't even make a serious try.

  3. Peri, I agree with Nikki. Many thanks for bringing this wonderful-sounding book to our attention. I think I hear Sister Mary polishing her secret decoder ring. If anybody can translate that code, it is she.

  4. Neat a book with an embedded puzzle. I'll have to get some Cracker Jack to get a new Decoder Ring and have a go.