The Secret Keeper
by Kate Morton

Atria Books; First American Edition edition, 2012. ISBN 978-1-439-15280-5.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 11/15/2012

Fiction: Mainstream

The Secret Keeper is a book of secrets and mysteries. A spellbinding story is woven around actress Laurel, and her siblings, uncomfortably dealing with their beloved mother's final days. Dorothy, the matriarch, is shown in her past story, mostly set in London during the blitz (WWII.) The pattern becomes set, in Morton's writing, of weaving back and forth between the 40s, the 60s and the present (2011).

Some of Morton's writing seems transparent to me, in that I can see what is coming...although this doesn't negate the readability and enjoyability factor. Each step of the way, Morton scatters crumbs of the secrets, like Hansel and Gretel marking the return path. It is up to the reader to follow the path and figure out the clues.

In the 1940s mode, we see the immature, flibbertigibbet Dorothy, working as a companion for a crotchety, irascible old lady; a WEALTHY old lady. Dorothy lives vicariously through the exotic Vivien, who lives across the street from the old lady. This beautiful, rich, and enigmatic woman enchants the poor, greedy Dorothy. Dorothy creates an alternate world for herself, where she is friends with the rich, and a possible heiress. Her life is lived through daydreams and far-fetched wishes.

In segues to the 1960s, Dorothy has changed. A lot. A loving mother and wife, she is content in the family farmhouse, raising her brood, truly enamored of her husband, and a fun-loving, compassionate woman. What happened between the 40s and the 60s to change her so much?

The mystery pivots around an event in the 1960s that daughter Laurel has suppressed for years. She saw something bizarre and inexplicable from the treehouse fort, hidden high in a tree. That occurrence involved her Mother, her baby brother and an unknown stranger—a man who showed up at the farmhouse during a birthday party. Sixteen-year-old Laurel had to talk to the police, and explain what she saw...but her Mother would never discuss it thereafter, and it faded from memory over time—until 2011.

Dorothy is dying. Is she senile, or suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's? Or is there something she is trying to confide in Laurel? The trunks in the attic have cryptic clues, scraps of paper and pictures that Laurel and her siblings don't understand. Dorothy tries to explain, in periods of clarity, but it is up to Laurel to find out what it all means, and put it together. She needs to give her mother peace in her last days.

This search takes her to London, to old friends of Dorothy's that are still living, to locales that Dorothy frequented and to the back story of Dorothy's life. Why did Dorothy change so much from who she was in 1938-1941 to the woman she became in the 1960s? What events or traumas happened in her life that led to the tragic confrontation with the unknown man who crashed the birthday party?

The adult children bring their mother home from her nursing facility to die at home, in her beloved farmhouse. Being there seems to trigger more subliminal memories, and brings more frustration and discomfort to Dorothy. Laurel must find out, and fast, what the past brought to the present, so her mother, and indeed, all of them, can rest in peace. The book's denouement was excellent, all the threads gathered and intelligently, albeit emotionally, divulged. I felt that the book was a bit longer than it needed to be; 100 pages could have been trimmed without ruining the plot or the finale—but it was highly interesting to read about both the 40s and the 60s when life seemed simpler, and the pace slower and less intense. Family secrets appeal to most of us, who have our own family dynamics to work through and remember.

Kate Morton, a native Australian, holds degrees in dramatic art and English literature and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland. She lives with her family in Brisbane, Australia. You can find out more on her website.

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