Fiction · Mystery/Thriller · Realistic Fiction · Suspense

Secrets of Southern Girls by Haley Harrigan

32470616Date Published: June 6, 2017

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

My Rating: 4/5 stars

* Thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark via Netgalley for a free digital copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Julie can’t shake the memories of her best friend Reba.  The good times they had together…and the night she killed her.  Or so she believes.  The images of that night are hazy.  Secrets revealed.  People arguing.  Reba falling.  When she wakes up in a hospital the next day and her cousin tells her that she pushed Reba, Julie’s grief-addled mind unquestioningly internalizes the guilt and she believes herself a murderer, even if she can’t remember why.

Ten years later, Julie has shaken off the dust of her hometown of Lawrence Mill, Mississippi and built a life for herself and her young daughter Beck.  But nothing feels right and everything wrong in Julie’s life goes back to the night Reba died.  Julie once dreamed of being a famous actress, but she’s abandoned those ambitions after losing interest in the midst of a massive depression.  Her marriage has failed as her guilt and sadness turns her into someone that even her husband can’t be around.  She is just on the verge of getting her life back into some kind of manageable order when August arrives.

August was Reba’s boyfriend.  From one of the only African American families in Lawrence Mill.  He was an unspeakable secret in their racially tense hometown.  He’s come looking for Reba’s diary.  To finally learn what happened that fateful night and put the past behind him.  The only problem is that Julie doesn’t have the diary.  She didn’t even know it existed.  Reluctantly, Julie agrees to accompany August back to Lawrence Mill in search of the book that can lay all of their questions to rest.  She’s desperate to know the truth of the last tormented year of her friend’s life, even as she’s terrified to find a nasty reflection of herself within its pages.  But whatever they believe they will learn from Reba’s diary, the truth is more astonishing than they can imagine and will flip their memories of Reba on their head and challenge what thy know about the girl they both loved and her final months of life.

As I began this book, I was slightly uninterested, thinking it to be just another prescriptive mystery.  Horrible tragedy.  Secrets revealed.  Poor Reba.  NEXT!  Yeah, not quite.  This story was far more complex than I had anticipated and I literally couldn’t stop reading until the end.  This is not your average sweet-innocent-girl-dies-tragically kind of story.  Reba is far more dynamic than many young victims in suspenseful literature.  She’s a great example of a likably unlikable character.  So much closer to real life than many teenage girls slapped across a page.

The age-old issues dealt with in this book are given a nice little twist that can bring about some great thought and discussion.  Forbidden love.  Teenage rebellion.  Racial discrimination.  Female friendships.   There is a lot of mull over in the book.  Unfortunately, some of this needs a bit of work.  The friendship between Julie and Reba, for instance, is beginning to fade just as the past events are beginning to climax, which means that the tragedy itself loses some of its emotional appeal.  The girls had been best friends since they were five years old, yet they seemed to let go of each other too easily and mistrust abounds within their relationship.  It just didn’t have the spark that it could have.  There is also the beginning of an interesting substory involving Reba’s father that is not as fully developed as it could have been.  It is an obvious red herring instead of a compelling subplot.

The story is mainly told from Julie’s perspective with occasional interjections from August and Julie’s cousin, Toby.  Reba’s diary entries provide the reader with a glimpse into the truth behind her choices shortly before her death.  While they are a necessary plot device, they certainly don’t read like the daily musings of a teenage girl.  They are too detailed, too well-put together, and very obviously the author’s narration.  If you look at them that way instead of as thoughts written by a girl who is supposed to be young, immature, and in the middle of situations that are way beyond her then they work much better.

I think the story shines most in the consequences and subsequent revelations for August, Toby, and Julie.  They have hung onto this tragedy for a long time, lived with a ton of guilt, and are thrown a gigantic dose of reality after reading Reba’s version of events.  The consequences of memory are that we build up events (and people) into something that can be a far cry from who or what they actually were.  Our minds polish those sharpened and ragged edges that so often accompany real life when in fact, the truth is a lot messier than what exists in our consciousness after time has worn it away.

All in all, this is a well-written story.  It flows nicely, offers some surprises and suspense, and can be a very satisfying and quick read.  It provides a bit more depth than cookie-cutter thrillers usually do and there are some solid takeaways available here.  Don’t expect any mindblowing upsets in this book, however.  It’s lack of melodrama is exactly what made it superior to other books in my opinion.  Anything more would have been eye-rollingly too much.  The story is human and relatable.  Teenagers are teenagers.  They get caught up in things and make mistakes.  They are masters of bad decision-making.  It’s real.  I’ll take that over some lame “earth-shattering bombshells” any day.

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