Friday, July 27, 2007

book review: Every Secret Thing by Ann Tatlock


Title: Every Secret Thing
Author: Ann Tatlock
Publisher: Bethany House – October 2007
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
ISBN: 0764200054

When Elizabeth (Beth) Gunnar comes back to teach at her old preparatory school in Wilmington Delaware, it’s with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. She loves literature and teaching. She loved Seaton. But she’s unprepared for the flood of memories that take her off-script the first day of school. And will she be able to handle the ghosts she knows will jump out at her from every old campus haunt? Maybe it was a big mistake to return.

Welcome to Every Secret Thing, a coming-of-age-revisited novel by Ann Tatlock, slated to be released this October. In the story, middle-aged single Beth does manage to last the year. We follow her as she befriends new student Satchel, reconnects with a former sweetheart and searches for the answer to a painful old question.

Beth tells her story in first person, slipping back and forth between past and present. The plot is easy to follow, though, with page-turning sections sandwiched between Satchel’s school compositions, mentor-moments between Beth and Satchel, telephone calls to old best-friend Natalie and dates with Ray.

Right from the start I took to the book’s setting. Who can’t love a tradition-rich private school, complete with its tales of rule-breaking trysts and other campus lore? The 60s feel of Beth’s high school memories and scenes from the life of her very ordinary middle-class family were additional treats for me.

Tatlock’s writing (which has won awards) was another highlight. Like the main character of the book, she is obviously a lover of books and puts allusions to the writings and philosophies of such literary notables as Virginia Woolf, Tom Wolfe and Sylvia Plath, as well as overt praise for the power of words, into the mouths of several characters. Her prose is graceful and unselfconscious with just the right amount of imagery to make it memorable. Symbolism possibilities abound from the choice of setting (practically invisible Delaware) to Satchel’s imaginary sadness-sucking machine.

The meaning of human existence is a theme that runs through the story. Beth identifies with Satchel when she claims to feel invisible – after all, that’s the way Beth felt through much of her childhood. Suicide is another preoccupation (not with any of the main characters having thoughts about suicide directly, but rather with its effect on those left behind). Tatlock answers the probing questions, ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Does God exist?’ with a light narrative hand as events lead Beth to recall an epiphany from her past. Satchel in turn finds inspiration from Beth’s example in her own crisis.

For a thoughtful, nostalgic yet adult trip down adolescent lane, don’t miss Every Secret Thing when it’s released this fall. Older teens may enjoy it too. Reading groups will want to look for editions that include discussion questions.

Thanks to Bethany House for providing an advance copy of the book for review.

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