Chloe is celebrating her 8th birthday, alone and forgotten, when she takes a bike ride and goes further than she’s ever gone before. In the midst of basking in the glow of her freedom and almost forgetting her loneliness, she comes across her own personal fairy tale. She finds three children, Nate, Cecelia, and Grace, playing in their yard, wearing beautiful clothes, and looking happier than she’s ever been. As they envelop her into their world, they gift her not only with a love of books that she will carry with her through the rest of her life, but with the knowledge that things are never as perfect as they seem.
Fast forward 30 years, and Chloe and Nate are married and running their very own antique bookstore. Like any relationship, theirs has suffered its share of hardships; the primary being the loss of their 2 year old son, Gabriel, more than 20 years ago. Having never discussed or moved past the loss, Chloe and Nate live around each other, rather than with each other. Their contented, if not a bit lonely, existence is shattered when Chloe comes home to a note from Nate, stating he has returned to their childhood home, a place both of them vowed never to revisit.
In trying to solve the mystery of Nate’s disappearance, Chloe finds a journal, written in code by Nate, revealing secrets he kept from her not only throughout their marriage, but dating all the way back to their childhood.
When I read the publisher’s summary of The Book of Secrets, I was actually expecting to read a book about infidelity. I don’t know how or why I got that impression, but what I found between these (albeit electronic) pages was so much more profound. This book is a great puzzle/mystery with a very important and hard-hitting message at its core. It really hit all the boxes for me. There were so many things I loved about this book, I honestly don’t know where to start. So, forgive me if I ramble.
I guess I should start with the writing style. I’ve come across a number of novels recently that jump between time periods, but I think this one does the best job out of all of them. The novel starts in the present and flashes back 30 years to the beginning of the relationship between Chloe and Nate. It’s done so well that it’s easy to get completely wrapped up in both time periods. As the book progresses, the flashbacks get closer and closer to present time, which I loved. Ms. Arnold does a fabulous job at covering a large expanse of time without the reader feeling like they’re missing key points or events. The reader really gets to feel like they are a part of Chloe and Nate’s childhood in a way that makes it easy to see the motivations behind their present-day behavior.
Another thing I really loved about this novel was Chloe’s love affair with literature. It was wonderfully unique to get to see it from its inception; when she first met Nate and his sisters, who were digging a hole to London to ask C.S. Lewis about Narnia. As Chloe grows, so does her love of books and she relates to them in much the same way I do. She (as the narrator) puts into words what I’ve never been able to in regards to the worlds and lives she witnesses through reading:
“I was amazed their lives didn’t continue around me. A whole world somehow tucked back into the book, waiting for me to set it free.”
I remember feeling this exact same way growing up, and often still do if I find a book I can really throw myself into.
Ok, here’s where it gets really personal for me. Rather than being a novel about infidelity, like I expected, The Book of Secrets is really, at its core, about what happens when couples don’t communicate, especially in the fallout resulting from tragedy. Like Chloe and Nate, my husband and I suffered a loss a couple of years ago that will always be a part of our lives. Because of that, I was really struck by how Nate and Chloe reacted to and around each other after their loss; neither wanting to show their pain, and each trying to protect the other. I think Chloe phrased what I was feeling in that time perfectly when reflecting upon her own feelings:
“When you’re hurting, the “strength” of the people who try and comfort you just feels like a wall, your pain bouncing off against them. What I’d needed was to see my pain reflected in someone else’s face; it would’ve felt so much less alone.”
This is one of those books that, regardless of your life circumstances, is destined to make you look at things differently. Whether it’s in how you communicate, how you handle hardship, or simply how you look at literature, there is a lesson to be learned for every single reader and I will carry with me the lessons I’ve learned here for a very long time.