I bought this book in my local bookstore under the misapprehension that this was more of a murder-mystery type book but it's not (not a complaint). It's a more suspenseful novel about friendships and romantic relationships.
Title: Secrets of Southern Girls
Author: Haley Harrigan
Page Number: 386, paperback
Genre: fiction, contemporary, mystery
Publisher: Sourcebooks, Inc.
Ten years ago, Julie Portland accidentally killed her best friend, Reba. What's worse is she got away with it. Consumed by guilt, she left the small town of Lawrence Mill, Mississippi, and swore nothing would ever drag her back. Now, raising her daughter and struggling to make ends meet in Manhattan, Julie still can't forget the ghost of a girl with golden hair and a dangerous secret.
When August, Reba's first love, begs Julie to come home to find the diary that Reba kept all those years ago, Julie's past comes creeping back to haunt her. That diary could expose the shameful memories Julie has been running from, but it could also unearth the hidden truths that Reba left buried…and reveal that Julie isn't the only one who feels responsible for Reba's death.
I began this book with the expectation that this was going to follow in the 'Southern Gothic' tradition and while it does in some manner it mostly does not. The beautiful and haunting writing style is spot on and is one of Harrigan's best features. It was easy to read and was stunning in it's beauty.
The main theme was the deconstruction of Rebecca ("Reba") as an idolized woman. Reba is the lodestone to which the other three main characters are drawn too. Her best friend, Julia ("Jules"), her secret boyfriend, August, and her neighbor/Jules' cousin, Toby. Her death has affected the three of them monumentally and stunted their ability to move forward in life in a healthy manner.
The story begins with Julie who now lives in NYC. She is an aspiring actress, tour guide and mother. She is still wrecked with guilt because she believes that she has murdered Reba. She runs into August one day who has flown to NYC to ask Julie to fly with him back to Mississippi to search for Reba's diary. The news that Reba had a secret diary is news to Julie and she panics.
August is the secret boyfriend of Reba. Their relationship is secret because August is black and Reba is white. August's father also took the manager position that Reba's father felt should have gone to him. This caused racial tension in the small town; the KKK marched, fires were lit in yards and eventually August's family house was burned to the ground. The company then moved August's family back to Virginia. The house fire was the same night as Reba's death and it caused August to be late to meet with her so he feels guilt that he caused her death by being late. They were to meet because Reba wanted him to have this diary.
The third (living) character is Toby. Toby is the neighbor to Reba and the cousin to Jules. He has a connection to Reba as well and was also near by when Reba died. He's the resident "bad boy" dealing drugs out of the house. As an adult, he paints for a living and sells his work in the local gallery. Toby has an antagonistic relationship with Julie. To be honest, Toby is the most interesting character out of everyone.
The last character is Reba. Her story is told through her diary entries. She talks about her family, her relationships with all the other characters and the events leading up to her death. I did not find her diary entries to be how a teenage girl would write in a diary. It was much more narrative and less stream of thought.
This book is told through all the character's point of view, in present and past tense. Reba's POV is through her diary and is always labeled but unfortunately the other's are never labeled and sometimes it's confusing and jarring. The different POVs do add multiple perspectives for the same events which slowly clear the mystery.
While the book is close to 400 pages, it is a fast read. It's lightly suspenseful and overall engaging. The book is character driven with an interesting premise. It's a slow start but once it gets going it's smooth.
My only complaints are that some of the actions and conversations seem odd and unrealistic but the writing style is really lovely that it negated my annoyances. This is Haley Harrigan's debut book.