SECRET SMILE by Nicci French is a diabolical story of perception,
obsession, twisted love and pure evil. The tale begins at the end
of what is really a short acquaintanceship between a young woman
and a young man. Their affair began in the traditional way: girl
meets boy, girl and boy date, girl realizes she's not interested
and calls the whole thing off. "I looked at Brendan and already he
seemed to be receding into the distance. I was thinking how to say
it, as cleanly and finally as possible. You can say, I don't
think this is working anymore, as if the relationship was a
machine … or, I don't think we should continue, as if
you were both on a road together. You can say, I don't want to
keep on seeing you. Only of course you don't mean see,
but touch, hold, feel, want. [Then] … almost before I knew
what I was about to do, I said the words. 'I don't think we should
go on with this. I'm sorry Brendan. I really mean it.' "
Miranda's "relationship with Brendan had been so brief that [her]
best friend, Laura, had been on holiday … and it was entirely
over and in the past … when she got back and rang me. [She]
didn't [even] bother to tell her about Brendan." At the start, she
has no idea what her meeting, and then subsequent rejection, of him
will do to her life and the lives of everyone she loves. No one
could possibly foresee the venom he will spread.
Miranda is surprised when her sister, Kerry, calls out of the blue
to invite her to dinner. The older woman is very excited and tells
Miranda that she has some fantastic news. "[Miranda] arrived at
La Table at about one minute past eight and Kerry was
already there. She looked illuminated from the inside and it showed
through her eyes. Almost everything about her was different." At
first, in the cross-talk Miranda gets the sense that Kerry is
pregnant. But that is not the news; rather, Kerry wants to announce
that she has a new boyfriend. But Miranda wonders why she chose to
"announce it in such a formal way."
Kerry goes on to explain: "It's a bit awkward. It really shouldn't
be a problem at all, if we don't let it become one. You see my new
boyfriend is 'Brendan,' she says. Isn't it amazing? He's about to
arrive. He said he thought it would be good if we all got
together." As if on cue, Brendan appears at the restaurant.
Shock! Disbelief! Confusion! Outrage! Miranda suddenly feels
propelled into a parallel universe where everything is the opposite
of what it should be; where all familiar objects, settings and
loved ones are distorted, as if she had walked through a glass
darkly. But what can she say? For the first time in so long Kerry
is beside herself with joy and the ever-smooth, ever-charming,
ever-confident Brendan, who can change personalities as easily as a
chameleon changes color, is very attentive to his new "love."
Miranda tries to tell her sister that Brendan didn't dump her ---
that she was the one who broke it off. Her parents plan a Sunday
brunch so they can all celebrate Kerry's new love and "help Miranda
get over her heartbreak." Brendan, who is so suave and believable,
has told them a story that Miranda simply has no power to refute.
She is very happy for Kerry. Too much time had been wasted as she
watched her older sister withdraw and wither in the shadow of
broken loves and dreams destroyed.
According to the Oxford American Dictionary, diabolical means "like
a devil, very cruel or wicked" and "fiendishly clever or cunning or
annoying." Brendan Block fits both of these descriptions, and his
deceptive charm mesmerizes those he preys upon, who then cannot
escape his pathological exploits.
To further peek between the covers of SECRET SMILE would be unfair
to readers. Be assured nevertheless that this novel is rich in
psychological suspense, and the characters are carved with
attention to the finest detail. The plot may seem simple, but it is
not. Nicci French is one of those rare writers who takes a subject
and, not unlike a forensic pathologist, slowly dissects it,
examines it and explores its essence, which gives readers a tight,
exciting and bone-chilling snapshot of the evidence. In this book
the author slowly peels away the layers of lies and
miscommunication that leads to the haunting of one young woman.
SECRET SMILE is a contemporary novel with roots in the oldest
stories about obsession, and in this case Miranda is thrust into a
deadly plot that ends in death and irredeemable destruction.
Readers should beware of only one thing: you will want to read this
book in one sitting. So plan well and enjoy!
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 23, 2011