Book Review: The Secret of Lies by Barbara Forte Abate
Barbara Forte Abate has such a gift for bringing to life real relationships between ordinary people that she creates an ongoing challenge to her readers by beginning her book with the lowest point of her character’s life: being drawn to run away and face her inner demons alone. The reader accepts Stephanie, or Stevie, as a real girl who grows up to be a real woman: her desperate act runs counter to the usual (and expected) female response to life, which is to passively endure the outcome of events. It is the author’s task to make sense of this act and to reveal it for what it is: a brief trough in the progression of life. Her message is feminine. It isn’t easy growing up female. Cut us some slack, and we’ll make things right. We need to make an active response, especially to such a threatening emotion as guilt.
Amidst all the disturbing events of her life, narrated with subtle honesty by Stevie herself, we see the fragile but warm interactions of her life. Stevie’s focus is herself, not the other party; it is a limitation that causes her to stumble through life missing the signs and details that would broaden her understanding of others. Lacking intuition, she must learn through experience. Stevie and her sister are close but far apart in temperament. Stevie’s mother and father come to life as caring and distinct individuals, unlike her aunt and uncle who are immersed in their own little world. Stevie’s promising relationship to a deaf boy is abruptly ended by circumstances, but her multifaceted relationship with Ash comes to life in all its playful stages.
In drawing her plot line, the author shows a respect for the complexity and fragility of marriage itself. There are many obstacles to be overcome before Stevie can open herself to love and even more before she can allow Ash to fully share in her life. In the meantime, Stevie’s withdrawal seems to him another personal rejection. The author leaves the reader with hope that, over time, the couple will move beyond their pain and build a solid life together.
At the heart of the novel is the age gap between sisters at the pivotal summer of l957 when Stevie lashes out with a torrent of words fueled by shock and disgust. There is a two year age gap between Stevie and her older sister. Such a gap would ordinarily fade in significance over a period of time, but instead the tragedy of death freezes it into permanence in Stevie’s mind. For sisters growing up in the fifties, as presented in this novel, the gap might well be substantial when one sister is fifteen and the other seventeen. What a difference in perspective, especially in a changing and contradictory society! The author focuses on that barrier between girls who are, in truth, hovering between childhood and adulthood. The younger child still looks at life with the eyes of a child, demanding that the world be as it should be. The older sister, engulfed in a whirlwind of change and experience, tries to understand and fit into the adult world. At times, using the brief advantage of experience and the inherent openness of conversation between siblings, the older sister tries to explain the complications of the adult world to the younger sister, but it is all in vain. We only listen to words that we understand and accept. When the older sister is growing up too fast, lacking guideposts and accepted limits, the world spins out of control for everyone. The younger child stands back, aware of but not sharing her older sister’s interests and focus. Lives separate and go in different directions. The result is a painful drama that, if told in the circumstances of this novel, must be gently conveyed with insistent honesty; in this novel, told through the voice of the younger child, the unfolding of an unwholesome relationship makes a compelling beginning to a story about the unraveling of the threads of a life.
Barbara Forte Abate is a sensitive writer who knows that there are no neutral observers in a dysfunctional family, even if the family is an extended one of aunt, uncle, and nieces, gathered only for the summer. An outbreak of discord, replacing harmony, is bad enough, but it is all too easy for visitors to take sides in a marital quarrel that should be kept between husband and wife: all it takes is sympathy and a feeling of understanding. Whether or not the visitors take sides, they are sure to feel uncomfortable and disturbed by the battle of bitter words raging around them. Worse still, such a battle may remain unacknowledged under a curtain of pretense. The picturesque setting of an seaside house, ideal for the languid days of a summer vacation, takes on ominous, stormy possibilities when a happy marriage turns sour.
The author clearly recreates her shoreline setting, giving it the tangible quality that draws Stevie back to bring closure to her past. The author conveys the expressiveness of the fifties and sixties that lingers in the memory, easily brought to recall by the music and gyrations of Elvis. Revealingly, it is just that music that triggers Stevie’s memories. Stevie is part of a generation free to enjoy the rock ‘n’ roll that their parents distrust. In writing this book, the author focuses on that aspect of a generation, leaving out the background of idealism that focused on John F. Kennedy and his dreams for America. That idealism isn’t very relevant to Stephanie as she changes from an uncertain girl of thirteen into a young woman trying to embrace life. Hers is a difficult life to follow in the pages of a book, but the rewards of doing so are great. We delve into the human condition as we focus on the feminine perspective, and that is the great reward of reading a novel like this one. Seeing a character wound up as tightly as Stephanie emerge from her shackles is both revealing and rewarding. We as readers must hope that this gifted writer will continue her writing career and imagine other characters who succeed in the difficult task of coming to terms with who they are. There are difficult issues here, but acknowledging them is a step toward gaining ascendancy. This book calls out for discussion as Stephanie senses the force of sexuality in her own life. With Ash and his life experiences, she has a chance to grow and control her own life. She can go beyond the desperate secrets that she was forced to keep by an adult world oblivious to her needs. She can forget the undeserved guilt that Ash rightfully calls the chip on her shoulder.