The Secret of You and Me is an unexpected treat of a heartfelt but very dark novel, a warm and queer retelling of Persuasion by Jane Austen. But it fashions a whole new world, a whole new set of feelings created from broken hearts and heavy religious guilt in small-town Texas.
Captain Nora Noakes has been away from Lynchfield, Texas for eighteen years due to her navy service, having fled her repressive hometown and the watchful eyes of her stone-tough father. She’s now a translator who speaks five languages, and now her father is dead, she’s planning on attending the services and then leaving again for good to resume her life. But the first person she sees when she steps across the threshold of the United Methodist Church for the ceremony is Sophie Russell, the woman whom she loved – and was cruelly parted from - so many years ago.
Sophie has never forgotten Nora. Her secret since high school, they were parted by the machinations of Sophie’s two-faced, hyper conservative uber-religious mother and Nora’s father. It was Sophie’s mother who caught them in bed, and Sophie’s mother who threatened to send Sophie to conversion camp. Though Sophie threw herself into a heterosexual relationship – with bisexual Nora’s high school boyfriend - to save herself from the fire, she still longed for and tried to write to Nora, but Nora junked her letters, refusing to relive the pain of their separation. Assuming that Nora had forgotten easily about her, Sophie crawled back into the closet and into a marriage with lawyer Charlie – and while sex with him was mechanical and routine, they have produced a lovely teenage daughter in Logan. Sophie ignores Charlie’s philandering and tries to solve her problems, first with alcohol (she’s been through treatment and is now sober) and then prayer as he tries to climb the ladder of local politics and she works with the Convention and Visitors' Bureau. Yet she is drawn to Nora in spite of herself.
Sophie and Nora have become studies in expression and repression. While Nora now lives as an openly as a gay woman, Sophie has desperately quashed her own sexuality. They are a powder keg of longing ready to explode, and together they are dynamite. But they have a lot to overcome before they can reclaim the love they once shared. Will they ever get there again?
The Secret of You and Me is a powerful romance with a lot of heavy, dark subject matter slipped between its pages.This book includes heavily realistic portraits of the pain closeting can cause, and tackles infidelity (though that infidelity is definitely a part of a very shitty marriage) and explorations of the mental toll of religious fundamentalism upon queer people. It’s a tear-jerker and a weepie in a very positive way, something that will make you sigh and gnash your teeth and grin and clap in the best of ways.
Sophie and Nora are each powerfully flawed characters with their own major issues. Nora still carries around a lot of resentment and betrayal in her heart and has multiple NSA lovers to avoid getting hurt again. Sophie lives miserably for others, seeking to please them, hoping that somehow she’ll become one of the flock thanks to her bowing and scraping.
Only with one another can they be their best, true, real selves, because they know and accept one another for who they are at core.
And their romance is great, and hard-fought for, and feels predestined in the best of ways. You will climb every single emotional mountain with these characters, and you will want to pull them up when they stumble.
Lenhardt’s character work in general is quite strong – I enjoyed everyone from foul-mouthed but cautious Logan to Sophie’s no-bullshit AA sponsor. This is true for everything and everyone except for our two main villains, who don’t have a ton of nuance. Sophie’s mother is the typical Christian-for-show villain who uses religion as a cudgel to force her child into keeping up appearances. Charlie is a little more sympathetic (imagine being told that your wife only sort of loved you for all of these years and is prepared to divorce you to be with her ex) but he don’t have a lot of nuance.
Extra points must be given for the richness of the small town Texas setting we get here. You can picture the world from which Sophie and Nora sprang; you can smell it in the megachurches and see it in gaudy southern dances.
There’s little Lenhardt does wrong with The Secret of You and Me. If you want to ache in the best of ways, pick the book up and enjoy it.
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That is a good thing–there are so many books that the e-versions have vanished. I hope more authors do republish!
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