18 Jan 2014 “The more time she spent with Nicola, the more she liked her. Which was strange, considering she generally didn’t like many people. But liking Nicola wasn’t enough to deter her. She remained adamant she would discover Nicola’s dark secret. Another of her own darker qualities, which she’d failed to mention earlier, was she always got what she wanted in the end, even if it was at someone else’s expense.”
Jenny in Secret Lies by Amy Dunne
I first came across Secret Lies when I attended the Bold Strokes Book Festival in 2013 in Nottingham, England. I attended the event mostly out of curiosity of what an event like this would entail, especially for a publisher that focused on LGBT books. While the event was enjoyable, the only person who reached out to welcome those of us who knew no one else was first time author Amy Dunne. Between her friendly welcome and the intriguing excerpt from her book that she read aloud in one of the panels, I knew Secret Lies was a novel I wanted to read when it was published. I was very excited when my NetGalley request was granted.
**Out of professional integrity, Dunne and I are friends on Facebook, however I would like to think that this did not influence my review of Secret Lies.
The story of Secret Lies follows Jenny and Nicola, two English school girls (if it were set in America I would say Juniors or Seniors in High School), as they meet, interact, and uncover each other’s dark secrets. Jenny is one of the popular girls in school. Her friends are really frenemies and she has earned herself the reputation of being promiscuous with the boys. Yet for all her “cool” credit, Jenny is working with a therapist to stop her dependence on cutting. Nicola, on the other hand, is the shy girl that most people never notice, except to tease. She is also abused by her mother’s live in boyfriend. One day when Nicola is fleeing from the abuse (with the knowledge that if she returns she will probably be killed), she literally runs into Jenny. Surprising them both, Jenny offers to patch up Nicola’s cuts in her house. Acting against her usual habits, Jenny invites Nicola to stay overnight, and Nicola surprises both of them by accepting. They soon find out more about each other than anyone else knows, and underneath that there is a new feeling. Will the girls survive having their darkest secrets found out, and what if there was one more secret than they originally thought?
I really enjoyed this book and I finished it within two days (realistically two evenings!). Two main realizations struck me as I turned the last page. The first was just how realistic the main characters, and in fact all the characters, were. They were flawed, but there were still many good qualities to them (except for Chris, Nicola’s abuser). The second thought was: where was this book when I was a teenager? This book would have been perfect for me in middle/high school. At the time, I was looking for any book with an LGBT lead character, but I tended to read dark realistic books (whereas now I tend towards books with a bit more fantasy, or LGBT characters that are doing anything but coming out). Plus, I am a sucker for happy endings, where the good guys win!
I have to start with the characters for this book, as I said they were very realistic. Jenny was a bit harder for me to relate to, but I think that is my personal bias, rather than her character. She is flawed, and actually aware of many of her flaws, but also knows that awareness alone doesn’t suddenly fix these flaws. I think my favorite quote from her though, was her reaction to kissing Nicola. “But she couldn’t be gay! She was Catholic, popular, and even had the reputation of being promiscuous with guys.”
It would be impossible to talk about Jenny without talking about the very visceral way that Dunne brought in all the mental health struggles Jenny is dealing with. Not only does Dunne step up and directly talk about the cutting, she shows the mental struggles that seem too often to be missing from similar narratives. “A few trickles of blood and it’d all be over until the next time she got this bad. Her body trembled as she acknowledged her darkest secret. There would always be a next time. She was addicted to hurting herself. It was the only way to stop the pain.” As someone who is studying psychology, and has friend who has struggled with mental health problems, I loved the inclusion of Jenny receiving treatment. I found this realistic. There was not an immediate fix, in fact it was a slow tough slog, where baby steps need to be recognized and the overall picture considered. Through Jenny’s interactions with her therapist and Nicola we were able to see that this was a long term problem, but there were certain triggers and complications. Basically I loved that the cutting and negative thoughts never just magically disappeared, but had to be struggled against.
In contrast to Jenny, Nicola was someone I was more able to understand. She worked hard, and knew that university was her way to improve her life. However, the abuse she has to deal with and the non-relationship that she has with her mother are completely foreign to me. “Moving away from her, his savage words continued to inflict pain in a way his fists never could. The possibility that his words harboured some truth tortured her every day. How could her mum not know the truth? It’d been going on for years and it was obvious something was wrong. If her mum did know, would she care or even stop him?” There was a spark in Nicola, a will to survive and do what she needed to and most of all to be herself.
For as much as I enjoyed seeing the two main characters interact, my favorite character was Laura. She was a quiet, almost a tag-along to Jenny’s group of friends, but the only one who ever seemed to care about people. She was the first to accept Nicola, and help her in social situations. However, Laura completely won me over when she finally got her revenge on Jenny’s frenemies. Honestly, I laughed aloud and re-read that section several times just to savor it!
There two main things that I was not such a fan of, and one of those is a personal preference. The one main issue I had was in the character of Elizabeth, Jenny’s older sister. While I enjoyed how she affected the plot, and by the end I started to like her, I found her a bit inconsistent or a bit unrealistic compared to the other characters. Some of this may be due to the book being set from Jenny and Nicola’s points of view. As an older sibling, I can understand her wanting to watch out for her younger sibling and not understanding the pressure she has caused for the younger sibling to live up to her. However, many of her actions are just plain creepy and bordering on pathological. Yet with not too much fight she becomes almost a perfect sister. While I like the final result, with the realism of the rest of the novel I found it hard to accept that she had really changed.
My only other complaint was the amount of romance, which sounds a bit silly. I am the type of person who will find anything else to do rather than watch a love scene in a movie, and usually skim bits in books where the romance takes the main focus. I found the beginning of the novel and the end very exciting and I couldn’t read fast enough. However, there were a lot of love scenes in the middle and some at the end. They were just more frequent and more in-depth than I really care for. Yet for all of that, the writing in those sections was good, and for a different reader I am sure they wouldn’t even notice.
As far as the ending of the novel goes, I will not go into any detail, but I will say that I really liked it. I was a bit worried when I saw what I thought would have been the prefect line to end on, but it was a chapter too early. “The front door swung open…. For the first time in a long time, Nicola felt she was home.” However, reading the last bit, I needed the closure that Dunne provided, and hadn’t even realized how much I wanted that chapter!
Final Verdict: A very realistic book for middle/older teens that I wish I had been around when I was a teenager.