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One Little Secret


One Little Secret

A week at the beach seems like the perfect summer vacation, but you might end up rethinking your annual trip to the shore after reading ONE LITTLE SECRET. Cate Holahan’s third novel is the ultimate goes-down-easy beach read, down to the Long Island summer cottage setting. (Pair it with a nice rosé.) But there’s a darkness hiding within the pristine beach house three couples have rented to get away from it all.

On the surface, the book’s diverse cast of core characters seem to lead the kind of privileged upper-middle-class life that would keep serious trouble at bay. Jenny Murray is an orthopedist turned on-air ESPN sports commentator who is married to Louis, a cocky physician. Rachel Klein is a hard-charging personal injury attorney, while her husband Ben is a stay-at-home dad who writes self-published mystery novels. Susan Ahmadi is an ex-lawyer who devotes her days to homeschooling her autistic son, while her husband Nadal, a tech CEO, spends long hours at the office readying his company for an IPO. They’re all neighbors in suburban Westchester, but it would be a stretch to call them friends.

"There’s more than one little secret in Holahan’s capably crafted domestic thriller, which creates genuine suspense when it comes to the book’s central mystery."

The Ahmadis are new in town, recent transplants to the East Coast from Seattle. Susan’s desperation to fit in is evident from the get-go. She’s still figuring out the complex “social hierarchy of East Coast suburban moms” and self-conscious about any possible missteps. When first faced with the unimpressive facade of the beach house she’s rented, her first thought is how to recover from the unforgivable social error of booking a “$3,000-per-night barn.” To Susan’s great relief, the home is far more impressive on the ocean side.

But soon it becomes clear that more than a potentially bad rental is causing tension between these couples. Susan is guzzling wine as fast as she can pour it. Jenny keeps disappearing into the bathroom to swallow painkillers and reapply the makeup that’s hiding a nasty black eye. Louis and Rachel are grilling Nadal about his company, Doc2Go, an app that allows people to request house calls from doctors. And Ben and Louis are at each other’s throats, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

Just how bad things are becomes clear when Rachel’s body turns up on the beach the morning after everyone arrives in the Hamptons. But who killed this successful mom of two? Holahan flips between the events in the hours before Rachel’s murder and what happens the day after, as local detective Gabby Watkins investigates the crime. Everyone, as Watkins discovers, has a plausible reason for wanting Rachel dead --- and almost no one has a solid alibi.

There’s more than one little secret in Holahan’s capably crafted domestic thriller, which creates genuine suspense when it comes to the book’s central mystery. Threatened lawsuits, domestic abuse and adultery create a toxic stew where everyone is guilty of something. The writing tends toward the pedestrian, but Holahan has a clear eye for the way marriage works (or, in the case of these characters, doesn’t), with one character describing it as “like a poker game in that the stakes increased the longer each player sat at the table.”

Watkins’ detective is the true outsider here, and she bumbles along at the fringes of the story, arresting first one person, then another, in her attempt to discover the real killer. A subplot involving her investigation of a possible date rape of an au pair doesn’t go anywhere, though it does provide a crucial insight that helps her solve the other crime. In the end, Watkins closes the book on the case, but her failure to fully grasp what really happened the night Rachel died reminds us that the only people who know the secret truths about a marriage are the people in it.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on July 12, 2019

One Little Secret
by Cate Holahan