Friday, February 5, 2010

'Secrets of Eden' Presents Four Distinct Perspectives on Domestic Violence, Angels, and Guilt

Reading time has been at a minimum for me the past few days, but every second I had to spare, I was reading Chris Bohjalian's new release Secrets of Eden. I'm still stunned by my reading, by the ending, and by the craftsmanship that went into the creation of this novel. I've read almost everything published by Bohjalian. His claim to fame was the novel Midwives when it was chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection in October of 1998. Although it was not his first novel, it was the first novel that reached a widespread audience. Since then, Bohjalian has written a wonderful array of works that includes The Law of Similars and The Double Bind, which revisits the setting of The Great Gatsby and ties into that classic novel. Even with an excellent body of previous novels, Secrets of Eden is Bohjalian's best work to date.

Why, you might ask, is this his best? And why, also, is it better than many other novels out there? For me, that answer is multi-fold. For one thing, and perhaps the most simple answer: I am interested and feel strongly about the topic. Bohjalian addresses domestic violence in this newest novel, and as a women's studies minor in college, the topic is an important one to me. Also, setting is always important in my mind -- I read books as a way to explore places I've never seen -- and Bohjalian is a master at making the setting evident and also in making it an integral part of the story. The third reason I believe Secrets of Eden is an exceptional novel is Bohjalian's use of four distinct characters as first-person narrators. And last but not least, the novel is a mystery disguised as a piece of literature. While I love a well-written piece of literature, I love a good mystery even more; what makes Secrets of Eden special is its combination and successful execution of the two.

The Reverend Stephen Drew is the first narrator and therefore introduces Bohjalian's story. Drew is a small-town, rural Vermont pastor, a college-educated man who turned to the church as a less-than-heartfelt calling. He believes in God and his power, and he tries his best to minister to his congregation. Or, at least, he has -- until one life-changing event: the death of parishioner Alice Hayward at the hands of her husband George, and the George's subsequent suicide. By using Drew as the story's first narrator, Bohjalian paints him as a sympathetic character. His first-person narrative gives readers background and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Bohjalian follows Drew's narrative with state prosecutor Catherine Benincasa's side of the story. Benincasa relates the investigators' side of the story as they begin to doubt that the tragic deaths of the Haywards was not a cut-and-dried case of murder/suicide, but something more. Benincasa's section allow Bohjalian to describe the circumstances from a very different place than the pastor's. Details from the medical examiner's report and interviews conducted by police offers become part of the story. While ostensibly not a friend of Drew's (and perhaps even an enemy), Benincasa is presented as a likeable character, as well.

In the third section Bohjalian switches to Heather Laurent's perspective. Laurent is a well-known author of books about angels. She has a violent history of her own which leads her to visit the small Vermont town where the Hayward's deaths seem to have affected everyone. Laurent works to heal those left behind through her auras and angels. Her own background story ties into the novel's main plot and provides an interesting tangential storyline.

Bohjalian closes the novel with a section narrated by the Haywards' daughter Katie. Katie's section reads the way a teenager speaks. As she imagines her parents' last hours, she uses words like "no way" and "seriously". The story, which until this point has been interesting but told from outsiders' perspectives, becomes personal as you read the feelings of the newly-orphaned teen. Katie is wise beyond her years as a result of her father's violence and her mother's compliance.

Bohjalian discusses the novel and his inspiration for writing it:

Bohjalian builds suspense right up until the very end -- so slowly and yet with great care. He leads you on a path of finding out details without giving so much away that you can guess the ending. Secrets of Eden is a thriller, but it is literature, as well. Long-time readers of Bohjalian's works will recognize that while all of his novels are different in their subject matter, all are similar in that they contain some level of mystery. Secrets of Eden is no exception to that rule. By using first-person narrators throughout the novel, but different ones, Bohjalian is able to control how much the reader learns by default -- each character only knows what they have experienced or been told. This increases the sense of mystery and forces the reader to look forward to the next section and the next for the information each contains.

Secrets of Eden will be made into a television movie by Lifetime. I, for one, can't wait to see this exquisite novel unfold on the screen. To read about the inspiration for this novel, read Bohjalian's article about domestic violence in the Huffington Post. To get a signed copy and listen to the author speak, check out tour dates for this novel.

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