"In these days of smart, knowing literary fiction, with its ironic debunking of manners and morals, there’s something refreshing about reviewing a book that inspires phrases like 'desperate longing,' 'cruel rejection,' 'deadly truth' and 'lonely passion' to describe its characters and their lives. When most 'serious' novelists write about 'regular' people, they surround them with packing-foam irony peanuts so there’s no confusion about the writer’s personal take on the world that’s being recreated with such precision. But this isn’t the case with Morris. ... The Last Secret appeals to the longing readers feel to inhabit, at least for a change, a zone free of such condescension — to be engaged by the lonely passion of Nora’s husband and his lover, the cruel rejection that drives Nora to desperate acts of anger and revenge, the devastating realization that the children have guessed their parents’ crimes of the heart. What a change it is to sink into a book where big, elemental feelings are coming at you all the time, and you don’t have to ponder the author’s debt to French modernism or postcolonial theory."So yeah, that's about the sum of it. Nora Hammond appears, to the outside world, to have it all: a loving husband from an influential family in their small New England town (Massachusetts this time), two wonderful children, both a paid career and a charitable cause that both reward and challenger. Yet the very first chapter suggests that something darker and more complex may lurk beneath the surface; in it, a then-17 Nora Trimble runs away from home with her older boyfriend, Eddie Haskins, on a cross-country odyssey that ends with another traveler mistaking Nora for a prostitute, Eddie beating the man senseless, and Nora fleeing both, never to see Eddie again. 20-odd years later, though, the misadventure hardly seems a blip on the radar.
Until two revelations split everything open, that is. First, Nora's husband Ken confesses to not a one-time fling or a brief, tawdry affair, but a relationship (in his words) with their closest friend, Robin. As he explains it,
"'Nora, I'm not talking about a few ... a few times,' he says, gasping out times. 'I'm talking about a relationship we ... I had.'Gradually, Nora discovers that many of their friends and relatives have known of said relationship, but kept it from her. Secondly, Eddie Haskins blows into town and tracks Nora down, reeking of menace and clearly wanting something, but what? His answer is both vague, and more than vaguely threatening:
"'For four years.'"
"Nora leans over the table. 'What is it? Why you're here? What do you want?'
"'Help.' He smiles. 'A helping hand, that's all. To make up for lost time. Chances I never had. Opportunity.'
"'So this is about money, then, isn't it?' She is almost relieved.
"'It's been a long time. How do you put a price on that? On time? I don't know,' he sighs. 'You tell me.'
"'So how much? How much do you want?'
"His laughter is sad, regretful. 'You don't get it, do you? But then, why should you? Nice family. Nice town. Nice life. Hey! Maybe if I hadn't been so worried, driving back and forth tryna find you, maybe I'd'a gotten away, too.'"
As Eddie continues to stalk Nora, her family crumbles. She finds herself unable to forgive Ken and Robin, or to stop asking for still more sordid details. Their two teenage children begin to crack under the strain, especially son Drew, who had been close to Robin's son Clay. The couple try, albeit inconsistently, to patch things up, if only for the kids' sake, but mounting problems at the newspaper Ken co-owns with brother Oliver and Eddie's odd appearances add to the strain. The end result, as the jacket synopsis tells us, is "a shattering conclusion" (though it doesn't mention the faintly cheesy epilogue).
That's pretty much what there is to say; this was a good book that doesn't pretend to be anything more than, well, a good buck. On an interesting side note, though ... I read most of it this morning, while Mr. Hazelthyme and Littlehazel were up with the birds, waiting in line for (wait for it) a book sale. Yes, I abstained; lead me not into temptation. Perhaps it's just me, but I can't help seeing the humor there.