Chris Bohjalian is one heck of a storyteller. He has a knack for reeling the reader in and never letting go, as evidenced in his previous bestselling novels, MIDWIVES and THE DOUBLE BIND. He does so again with SECRETS OF EDEN, in which a small-town tragedy is seen through the eyes of four different people.
Alice Hayward had lived most of her married life putting up with her abusive and alcoholic husband, George. Few people in town knew, except those very close to the couple, about the beatings she suffered at the hands of her husband. One day, Alice’s friend Ginny discovers both Alice and George dead --- an apparent murder/suicide. Reverend Stephen Drew, the local pastor in Haverill, Vermont, was close to Alice, and he begins to question his faith in the wake of this horrible incident. Wracked with guilt, he knew that George was abusive to Alice --- but had hoped she would leave him --- and now wonders if he could have done more to help her. However, Stephen might have fostered his own selfish reasons for wanting Alice to leave her husband.
Heather Laurent is an eccentric, new-age writer who happened to be in town doing a reading at the time of the murder. Heather’s specialty is writing about angels. She feels a sort of spiritual connection to the horrible incident because her parents also died in a murder-suicide pact. When she speaks to Katie, the now-orphaned teenage daughter of the victims, she warns her to be careful of “evil angels.” Heather is convinced she can help the town heal because of her own tragic experiences and the fact that she is tuned in spiritually. By most in town, she is regarded as an “unstable” flake but does offer kind words to Katie and helps Stephen assuage his own guilt.
Catherine Benincasa is the Deputy State Attorney appointed to the case. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear to her and her investigators that this “murder-suicide” might in fact be just a “murder.” Or even two separate murders, which would make sense due to the lag time between the two deaths. There are too many discrepancies at the crime scene to support their initial findings, and once she gets a hold of Alice’s journal, Catherine discovers that Stephen and Alice were having an affair. When Stephen leaves town unexpectedly, he becomes her prime suspect.
Bohjalian has taken what could have been a run-of-the-mill small-town crime story and elevated it into a compelling piece of reading you won’t soon forget. Through the four different points of view, we see the story from all sides and what each of the characters brings to it. Stephen Drew is wrestling not only with his faith but with the tremendous guilt he feels over his secret affair with Alice. Heather Laurent has experienced the same type of violent loss in her own life and feels she has something to share with those left in the wake of this incident. Catherine Benincasa has a job to do and wants to make sure those responsible will be brought to justice. And poor Katie Hayward must try to make sense of her parents’ deaths and figure out what exactly the future holds.
Although some points of view are more riveting than others, it still adds up to a complete picture of one horrible event. SECRETS OF EDEN is more than just your standard crime fiction. It’s a meditation on loss, guilt, and how one violent incident can be imprinted on one’s soul forever.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on April 27, 2011
Secrets of Eden