Sunday, January 31, 2010
The Last Secret by Mary McGarry Morris
The Last Secret is a thriller that is supposedly well-written. It got good reviews and the author is critically acclaimed. The story centers on Nora, who works at a newspaper and has a couple of kids and a successful husband. From the fact that she has a career and a family (I guess) the reader is supposed to think her life is perfect (according to the reviews) but from the very beginning of the book, her life and sanity is shattering into shards.
I found the structure of the book to be confusing and the writing a little distracting and hard to follow. It starts off describing a violent, sexually charged week of her life as a rebellious teen and quickly moves forward to the present day. Nora is middle-aged, her marriage is crumbling and her kids are suffering. Her husband has been having a relationship with his best friend's wife, who happens to be her best friend and his ex-high school sweetheart. The story then unfolds mainly from Nora's point of view, which is highly fragmented, panicky and full of self-loathing. The other perspective is that of a sociopath from her past who has resurfaced named Ed. His misogyny mingles with her self-hate and vulnerability to paint a disturbing picture of victimization that is pretty convincing.
I kept wondering if people are really this surprised when their middle class, suburban life--career, marriage, nice house, two kid--fails to sustain them. I find that hard to relate to but I suppose I shouldn't. The book does a good job of contrasting appearances with psychological pain lurking underneath the surface. As far-fetched as the plot would seem if I were to write it down on paper, The Last Secret is believable up to a point, which makes me wonder why, and have some degree of respect for the storytelling. By the end of the book, things are both totally unbelievable and simultaneously predictable. Plot twists reveal "surprises" that are easy to see ahead of time and things become more like a daytime soap opera. The "last secret" is apparent early on, making its revelation anti-climatic. Everything else that happens after that point seems sensational and hard to take.
In the sense is that it's a dystopian novel, it kind of works, but also feels cheap and emotionally manipulative, like a Hollywood movie. Thematically it reminds me of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, which offers a dark, depressing take on the American middle class, but gives the reader no hope or reason to care about what happens to his characters. The Last Secret feels empty in a similar way. The characters don't seem to have any depth to them. At best it's a modern day Gothic American tale, grotesque and strange yet familiar and mundane. The incestuous small-town feel the book conveys is realistic--lives are too intertwined and there is no way to be sure of who knows what or where anyone's loyalties lie. At worst its a melodramatic, goofy murder story about wife-swapping and keeping up appearances that drowns itself in a swirl of shame and loathing. There's also a quasi-religious side-plot that is a little heavy-handed. The theme of "respectability" didn't really engage me. The theme of self-deception was far more intriguing.
I didn't like it very much, though I was compelled to finish it because I wanted to know how things were going to turn out. By the end I was pretty disappointed and happy to be done and move on to the next library book. I also think it could have been about 50 pages shorter. I probably won't read any more of her books.