It’s been awhile since I’ve been so conflicted about a protagonist. To say that I wanted to see Nikki lose isn’t entirely accurate, but I definitely wasn’t rooting for her happily ever after, either. Nikki is portrayed as a flawed, yet persistent woman. I can always understand her choices, even if I didn’t always respect them.
Her Secret Life follows Onika “Nikki” Lewis through her young adult years, alternating between her high school graduation and early years of college to her post-graduate mid-twenties. In vivid flashbacks, Warren dredges up painful memories of a drug-addicted mother and grandmother who is too consumed with her daughter’s “sickness” to love and nurture the granddaughter who’s left behind. Nikki’s escape comes in the form of a full scholarship to the prestigious Robinson University in Atlanta, a beacon of excellence for the most promising black scholars. It here where Nikki opts to create a new identity. No longer known as the daughter of the town whore, she vows to become successful and sophisticated.
I thought the hardships of her youth and her tenacity to succeed would serve Nikki well. Unfortunately, she squandered her opportunity, instead being thrown out on the streets — literally — when her relationship with a wealthy playboy abruptly ends. The bulk of Her Secret Life focuses on Nikki as she reconciles who she thought she’d become with her new reality as another unemployed, homeless person on the streets of Washington, D.C.
What soured me on Nikki was her pride and greed, and her greatest character flaw was dishonesty. Although it was easy to understand her decision-making, Nikki’s lies only dug her into hole after hole after hole. It got particularly old when it interfered with the growth of her relationship with Graham. It was as it she didn’t learn her lessons, and was doomed to lose, even when it looked like she might start winning. Her inability to make smart choices when people from her past popped up kept me shaking my head in disdain. Nikki’s arrogance — even in the midst of her own downfall — was frustrating. Her condescending attitude toward those trying to helpful and her mockery of their faith was grating and bordered on disrespectful. I kept wanting her to be able to simply acknowledge others’ faith without always having to get the last word in about how her own faith wavered.
After finishing the book, however, I realized Nikki’s journey was the entire point. Her struggle to put her past behind her without reconciling the true impact it had on who she became was a major theme. Even when she had the opportunity to pursue a healthy, promising relationship with Graham, her constant paranoia about her past and her present situation was always a roadblock. Only when she is forced to face her past head on does Nikki truly show growth.
Her Secret Life is a compelling read. Despite my mixed feelings about Nikki, I couldn’t put it down. I would be particularly interested to see a sequel to Her Secret Life, whether following Nikki and Graham or one of their Graham’s friends. They served as foils throughout the story, often providing cautionary advice or simply support to the main characters. However, they all seemed to have more lurking with their own situations.