Secret Lies by Amy Dunne is a book that I read over two days, but stayed with me for quite a bit longer. Categorized as a Young Adult book, it deals with some rather difficult subject matter and is something that deserves a bit of reflection both during and after reading. This isn’t to say that the book is nothing but doom and gloom – but it also isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. I’m impressed at how well Dunne balances the darker story lines against the burgeoning romance between the two main characters to produce a remarkably good first novel.
Although they are both in the same school and grade, Jenny O’Connor and Nicola Jackson are virtual strangers when they literally run into one another and end up skipping classes. Both girls are hiding their own secrets – Nic is the victim of abuse at the hands of her stepfather, hiding the scars and bruises and isolating herself from everyone. Jenny seems to be a young woman who has it all – pretty and popular, she’s the natural leader of her friends; but, underneath she is emotionally paralyzed by the pressure of everyone’s expectations, as well as her own guilt and doubts, leading her to cut herself as a means to feel anything. As their friendship develops and solidifies over shared secrets, they each provide the support the other needs. Sounds like it is bound to be a complete angst-ridden train wreck, but Dunne handles the back stories without hand-wringing angst – giving a realistic and sensitive portrayal of abuse and cutting. At the same time Dunne captures the intensity of first love, weaving in all the overwhelming wonder and joy as well as the doubts and fears of coming out. Obviously, there’s a lot going on in this book.
Dunne has created characters that feel real and easy for the reader to connect with. I liked both characters and found myself easily caught up in their story. At times I thought Nic was a bit too grounded and maintained a level of maturity and strength and would have expected her to have more baggage to deal with as a result of her rather brutal home life. In counterpoint, Jenny’s development is much more apparent as the story progresses and she grows and matures, learning to deal with the issues and guilt that led to her cutting.
It was refreshing that neither one of the characters were waiting for someone else to save them. Jenny had already been seeking help from a therapist to deal with her cutting and Nic had her own plans to make enough money and get good enough grades to escape her home life. In meeting one another, they didn’t find a saviour; rather, they found someone to share their secrets and draw the strength they needed. The immediate seriousness of Nic’s situation was a bit more dire, and Jenny does have a few white knight moments – but I was so desperate for Nic to get out of that house that I was more than willing to accept Jenny’s invitation for Nic to stay with her family.
There are a few elements in the story that are a bit contrived and the romance develops pretty fast; but, Dunne’s writing invests the reader into the characters so much that I was willing to accept them and plunge ahead in the story. My biggest qualm was Nic’s plan to confront her stepfather in order to get proof of his abuse – the scars alone should have been more than enough, but I’m willing to go with it because there’s something canonical about teens making bad decisions in YA books. In most books actually since without characters making bad decisions, the book would end after the first chapter and everyone would live happily ever after.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to reading more from this author. Recommended.
Note: If you have any triggers around abuse, this may not be the best book for you to read. There are a couple of brutal scenes of physical abuse – complemented by even more brutal doses of ongoing psychological abuse from her stepfather. They are not gratuitous and are essential for the plot and character motivations.