Book Review: The Book of Secrets by Elizabeth Joy Arnold
Childhood secrets, the ugliness behind a serene family facade, imagination unleashed by the beauty of good books — all are key elements of the exquisite new novel The Book of Secrets written by Elizabeth Joy Arnold.
Chloe’s life changed forever on her eighth birthday when she met the mysterious, wonderful Sinclair children. Scrubbed and wholesome in a hopelessly old-fashioned way, living in a secluded country home in California redwood territory, home-schooled by a kind and creative mother, siblings Grace, Nate, and Cecilia welcomed Chloe into their hearts, and from that moment on, they became the center of Chloe’s life.
As the book opens, Chloe is in her mid-forties, struggling with the tensions of her 25-year marriage to Nate. Chloe and Nate have loved each other since childhood, but a tragedy in their early days together has created a permanent hole that neither knows how to fill. When Chloe finds a note from Nate saying that he’s suddenly gone back to his childhood home to deal with a family matter, she is shocked and dismayed. That home was the site of their nightmare, and she can’t imagine why he’d consent to return. Unsure what to believe, Chloe searches for clues, and finally finds a secret notebook, filled with a coded sort of language written by Nate, tucked inside a hollowed-out copy of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Chloe struggles to decipher Nate’s writing, sure that it will help her understand his sudden departure — but unsure whether she truly wants to unearth secrets from their awful past.
As Chloe cracks the code through the use of favorite childhood books, the narrative shifts back and forth between Chloe’s present-day struggle to understand the secrets that have undermined her marriage and the past, full of hidden family drama and dysfunction, as well as the delights of first love and devoted friendship.
The Book of Secrets explores themes of family, faith, and imagination, and peers into the heart of a marriage — what holds it together, what makes it fall apart. The secrets revealed in The Book of Secrets are huge and devastating, and it amazes me that Chloe and Nate survived as a couple at all.
The writing in this book is quite lovely, full of descriptions that vividly convey the wonders of childhood, full of play (digging a hole to London to try to go visit C. S. Lewis), journeys to the fantasy worlds of books, puzzles, and hidden codes, and the pure certainty of love that flows between Chloe and the three Sinclair children. The book is also a charming tribute to the power of good books, amply illustrating how books can inspire and transform, provide escape and solutions.
Ultimately, there is a mystery at the heart of The Book of Secrets — what happened 25 years ago, and what has Nate been hiding from Chloe all these years? (I’m being deliberately vague, I know. This is yet another book that I think is best read with as little knowledge beforehand as possible.) The tension builds and builds, and as Chloe finds herself reexamining long-held beliefs based on new information that she uncovers, we as readers have to readjust our understanding of events as well.
The ending is tension-filled, dramatic, and just as it should be. I did more or less figure out the general shape that the ending would take well ahead of time, but that didn’t matter in the slightest. Even though I was right on the money about the “what”, the “how” and “why” were surprising, shocking, and yet made total sense in the context of the story.
This is a perfect book for book lovers. Not only is the story of Nate and Chloe and their family secrets compelling and well-written, but the obvious adoration that the author feels for reading and its magic shines through on every page.
Review copy courtesy of Bantam Books via NetGalley.