Kate White’s clear prose elevates this B-grade melodramatic potboiler into a believable contemporary account of a woman trapped in a nightmare of murder and betrayal. The novel has the studied eye of a marriage under attack. This understanding fundamentally shapes the plot of The Secrets You Keep, which
essentially unfolds in the fractured first-person voice of successful writer Bryn Harper. Bryn has come with her husband, Guy, to the town of Saratoga Springs, New York. The summer sojourn is meant as a chance to escape the hustle of Manhattan and perhaps a way for her to get her “mojo back” now that her broken bones have healed. Bryn also wants to conceive and put out a proposal for a new self-help book.
Vulnerable and a little off her game (lately she’s been suffering a bout of writer’s block), Bryn struggles through webs of sleep, overwhelmed by a series of dreams that have progressively plagued her. Guy is gone most days, distracted by his high-powered job running the development office for Saratoga’s small but well-regarded opera company. With most of Guy’s time taken up grabbing drinks and schmoozing with skittish donors, Bryn
is left largely to her own devices. A planned dinner party might be the best way for Bryn to engage again, even meet a few people from the town.
The larger issue here is the mental effort the dinner will demand, coupled with “the little white lies” Bryn has been telling her husband at a time when they’ve never been closer. Guy silently chafes at his wife’s inertia; he’s also frustrated by the glacial pace of her recovery. Bryn can’t stop thinking about her friend Paul, who offered her a lift home after a book signing but then ran his car off the road on a perfectly dry stretch of the Mass Turnpike. Bryn remembers nothing from the minutes before the accident, just hazy memories of heat and flames and dark smoke. Bryn’s grief over the tragedy has begun to shape-shift into something else: bouts of panic supplemented by great stretches of lethargy in which an unseen man calls out her name: “I want those details. The car crashed, a man burned to death and I still don’t completely understand why.”
The novel has a constant sense of disquiet as White unfolds Bryn’s shattered backstory
and the riddle behind Guy’s supposed secrecy. Bryn tries to recall all she can about the crash, no matter how small. From the nights of bad dreams to the fractured faces of her dinner party guests, what starts out as concern soon morphs into something far more sinister. Guy comes off as undeniably magnetic
(“he charms the pants of his friends"), but afterward he’s irritated at Bryn when she kicks up a fuss about some stolen bank notes and a box of burnt kitchen matches left behind in her office drawer.
Adding to this marital stress is Bryn’s confrontation with Eve Blazer, the owner of the
company who catered the party. Bryn is convinced that someone in Eve’s employ
stole the money and left the matches. The conversation with Eve gnaws at the edge of Bryn’s mind not just because of Eve’s smug dismissal of her, but because of the way Eve accused Guy and his guests. Still, Bryn remains perplexed at why someone would sneak into her office to steal cash and a leave a menacing message. Bryn’s marriage to Guy threatens to explode when Bryn finds herself pushed into a harsher reality of murder. Guy’s innocence is severely compromised when Bryn--in the face of a suspicious Detective Corcoran--is left to pull together the unraveling strings of his past.
White writes with confidence, peppering her mystery with the usual suspicious characters: Derek Collins, a fellow writer who takes a shine to Bryn; Bryn’s new best friend, Sandra, who smiles with “the malevolent grin of a fairy-tale witch;” Nick Emerling, who looks like he could be a local TV news anchor with his thick brown hair “shellacked into place;” manipulative Eve, contemptuous of other women and rumored to have previously known Guy. Most readers will probably figure out the culprit or at least have a good feel for who it is. Some of the twists remain secret up until the end (particularly the events leading up to Bryn’s accident), but at that point I'm not sure readers will really care.
By then, the sense of being surprised has largely been and gone.
I liked the book; I just didn’t embrace the character of Bryn. For most of the story, I found her remote and inaccessible, and she has stupid responses to all of the mayhem around her. More sympathetic are her efforts to create a stable life, either in her career or in her marriage. Still, White mostly gets the job done, beyond the limitations she places on Bryn. The book is full of unsettling moments, and for those who like a good Hitchcockian melodrama, The Secrets You Keep basically delivers, despite its wooden heroine and predictable ending.