The Secrets She Kept
The Secrets She Kept is the second book in Brenda Novak’s Fairham Island series about a prominent family on… you’ve got it… Fairham Island. In the first book, The Secret Sister, Maisy Lazarow returns to Fairham Island to help her troubled brother Keith and ends up unearthing old family secrets and finding love. In The Secrets She Kept, Keith is the one who steps into the spotlight to solve the murder of their formidable mother, Josephine Lazarow.
It’s been five years since Keith last set foot on the island where he grew up. Five years ago, his fractious relationship with his mother resulted in a bout with substance abuse. Since then, he has left Fairham, kept his nose clean, and made a fortune in real estate in LA. Now, with one phone call from Maisy, all the buried memories and feelings come rushing back. His mother is dead, found naked in the bathtub in her stately home. The police believe the death to be suicide, but Keith isn’t so sure. His mother was just too vivacious, too proud, and too stubborn to give up on life. But if she didn’t kill herself, who is responsible for her death? In their small community, strangers tend to stick out like a sore thumb. So is it possible that Josephine was killed by someone Keith knows, even someone he’s close to? Is his quest for the truth worth the price of dredging up secrets that are best left forgotten?
When Keith left Fairham five years ago, he was in a bad headspace. A lifetime of doing battle with his mother had left its mark, so Keith found refuge in the arms of Nancy Dellinger, one of Josephine’s employees. He then borrowed money from her to buy drugs and skedaddled out of town. Now that he’s back, one look at Nancy and he’s decided that he wants her again. The problem? Keith has no intention of staying in Fairham while Nancy only wants a committed relationship. Despite knowing this, Keith wastes no time in pestering Nancy into his bed again. And I say “pester” because that’s exactly what he does – calling Nancy repeatedly and asking, no, practically begging her like a little boy to come play with him. It does not matter that Nancy is fearful of being hurt again, or that Keith’s sister warns him to stay away. To both of their objections, his answer is a shrug and a selfish “what’s the harm in having a little fun?” Clearly, what Nancy wants is not his primary concern. Five years ago, he needed her to assuage his pain. Five years later, he needs her once more to sooth the complicated emotions evoked by his mother’s death. Everything else is incidental.
With a “hero” like Keith, I had hoped that Nancy would be a heroine I could root for. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In the years since Keith left, Nancy has remained so much in love with him that she has been unable to become intimate with another man. She is an insecure woman who can’t quite believe that a man like Keith would be interested in her, which is perhaps why as soon as he looks her way she’s jumping into his bed again. When she’s not having sex with a man she knows has no intention of sticking around, she spends most of her time obsessing about her weight. She’s an 80’s cliché who acts horrified when her sister tells her to stock up on condoms but can’t even muster up enough outrage when the man she’s in love with uses her and then discards her with the mother of all lines “I’d love you, too, if I was capable of it”.
This book brings to mind that idiom “death by a thousand cuts”. Everything is just a little off. After receiving Maisy’s phone call, Keith hops on the first flight back to Fairham. No sooner has Keith set foot on the island than he is playing armchair detective with forensic knowledge gleaned from Google. He makes huge leaps of logic based on circumstantial evidence, and then overturns the same theories based on equally flimsy “proof”. Interspersed between his discoveries – discoveries that just happen to conveniently fall into his lap – are poorly written conversations in which inane observations such as “Are you kidding me?”, “How’d you know?”, and “Oh my God!” are “cried out” to denote the speaker’s surprise and emotional distress. Other inconsistencies include a complete disregard for police procedure and jurisdictional laws. And when the murderer is finally unmasked, it’s someone so tangential to the story that it almost feels like a cheat.
The Secrets She Kept is marketed as romantic suspense but it didn’t work for me on either front. The solution to the murder mystery is too pat, and I find it hard to root for a couple who is as selfish and needy as Keith and Nancy. Towards the end, Nancy finally shows some backbone and Keith of course has the last-minute epiphany that he is capable of love after all. But by then, it was too little, too late. I have read Ms. Novak’s books before and remember enjoying those. Too bad I won’t be adding The Secrets She Kept to that list.