Title: The Book of Secrets
Author: Elizabeth Joy Arnold
No. of Pages: 464
Origins: Bantam Dell
Release Date: 2 July 2013
Bottom Line: Compelling and gorgeously written
“Tending to their small bookstore while trying to reach Nate, Chloe stumbles upon a notebook tucked inside his antique copy of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Written in a code that Nate and his sisters created as kids, the pages contain long-buried secrets from her and Nate’s past, and clues to why he went back to Redbridge after all these years. As Chloe struggles to decipher the notebook’s hidden messages, she revisits the seminal moments of their youth: the day she met the enigmatic Sinclair children, their increasingly dangerous games a magical escape from their troubled childhoods; the first time Nate kissed her, camped out on the beach like Robinson Crusoe; the elaborate plan she and Nate devised, inspired by Romeo and Juliet, to break away from his oppressive father, and how the thwarted attempt upended their lives forever. As the reason for Nate’s absence comes to light, the truth will shatter everything Chloe knows—about her husband, his family, and herself.”
The Book of Secrets is first and foremost a mystery. Chloe grapples with many unanswered questions, the least of which is why her husband would go back to their hometown with all of its horrible memories. Making good use of flashbacks and memory sequences, the truth unfolds in sections, with each section marking a significant milestone in Nate’s and Chloe’s burgeoning relationship as well as showcasing just how much things have changed since then. The mystery for the reader becomes not the reasons for Nate’s sudden departure but why their relationship has declined so much over the years. Chloe hints at events that she is eventually forced to revisit, and the final picture reveals in startling clarity all of the horrors they have had to face and how they lost each other in the aftermath.
The Book of Secrets is as much a love story as it is a mystery. First there is the love story between Chloe and Nate, two lost souls searching for the love that is missing in their lives and who love each other enough to stay together through the worst that life can throw at you. While the story explores the fracturing of their relationship, it also highlights the mending of it, so that the end is as beautiful and poignant as one might hope. Then there are the books. Stories and their love of them are what bring Nate and Chloe together, and through their bookstore, that shared love is the one thing that keeps them together when things get tough. This is seen through their bookstore, their interactions, and even little statements that will leap out at fellow book lovers.
“I ran my fingers over the text then held the book up to my face, closed my eyes and inhaled the sweet-sour scent of old paper and binding glue. Did everyone who loved books do this when they encountered a new one? I loved the physicality of books just as much as the stories inside, the feel of pages between my fingers, the intricacies of classic fonts winding along the neatly lined rows of words.”
One would be remiss in failing to discuss the cast of characters. All of them are truly and realistically flawed, and a reader will have serious issues with their decisions throughout the novel. Yet, it is this realistic behavior that lends credence to the novel, thereby preventing it from being too fanciful. The character development is surprisingly robust, given that it only occurs in the many flashbacks, and extremely effective in allowing readers to understand each character’s motivation and mindset. One may not agree with Chloe’s behavior behind her husband’s back, but one can appreciate her reasons for acting that way. This is due solely to the careful layering of the entire story within a story, of the use of beloved childhood classics to help further their tale of love, loss, friendship, family, heartache, and betrayal.
The beauty of The Book of Secrets is multi-layered. For one, there is the oft-hinted tragedy regarding Nate’s and Chloe’s past, the clues to which Ms. Arnold methodically sprinkles throughout the novel in such a way that a reader never becomes impatient for the lack of answers. For another, each of the characters are wonderfully complex, evoking both love and hate, joy and disappointment in a reader. Then there is the fact that it is a complete adoration and celebration of books and the stories they contain. Ms. Arnold superbly captures the essence of a bibliophile. Between the loving descriptions of Chloe and Nate’s book store to the frequent reminiscences of influential books shared and discussed at length among the group of friends, readers can only sigh with pleasure at how accurately Ms. Arnold portrays the profound impact a well-written book can have on someone at any age. To Chloe especially but to all the Sinclair children, books are magical, and it is this aspect of The Book of Secrets which imbibes the entire story with an enchanted quality bibliophiles will appreciate.