The Things We Wish Were True

August 9, 2016

The Things We Wish Were True. Marybeth Mayhew Whalen. 2016. 209 pages. Lake Union Publishing. [Source: Kindle First Program.]

Have you ever read something that can only be described as being on the tracks when a slow-motion train wreck is about to happen? The constant feeling of “it’s going to happen, I can’t stop it, and it’s going to be really bad” gripped me while I read The Things We Wish Were True, but in the best way. I was compelled to finish reading nearly as soon as I started, and I wasn’t disappointed along the way.

On its face, this is a story of a quiet southern town, Sycamore Glen, N.C., where families spend all year looking forward to afternoons spent together at the neighborhood pool. Everything has its place, and everyone knows what to expect. But this town is gilded, and its secrets bubble just below its surface. What is more enticing, however, is the intricate way in which each family’s secrets are intertwined with the others.

When Jencey finds herself and her two daughters on a reluctant extended vacation in her hometown, she wants to hide her family’s truth as long as possible. She’s in good company, though, with her “best friend” Bryte — who is now married to Jencey’s high school boyfriend — and trying to keep her own secrets while she holds her husband’s desire to have a second child at bay. Then there’s Zell, who longs for a connection with someone, and finds herself the surrogate mother to her newly single next door neighbor’s children – she is involved in more secrets than she’s even aware. I would go on, but the truth is everyone in this sleepy town has secrets and struggle to keep them hidden. As Jencey reacquaints herself with the people of her former life, she finds that she really did not know her neighbors and friends like she thought she did. And while everyone has struggled to keep their secrets under wraps for years, the tide changes when the town’s beloved pool becomes to the scene of a child’s near-drowning. They’re all pushed together in ways that finally make it nearly impossible to ignore one another or the pain they have unwittingly caused each other. Answers to the unresolved questions of their pasts tumble out of their closets one by one, making for a story that is suspenseful but not contrived.

What stands out with this book is the author’s ability to give care and attention to nearly every character. She accomplishes this by telling the story of Sycamore Glen through different POVs. There is a depth and sensitivity she shows to each character’s story that remind you they are people – flawed and full of mistakes, but real. I actually found the most riveting character to be Cailey, a young girl who finds herself at a ground zero of sorts in how she is privvy to the inner workings of everyone in the neighborhood. I would argue that she is probably the most interesting character as well, given that she is the impetus for some of the most honest conversation and action in the book.

I definitely recommend this novel. There is some subject matter this may be triggering for some readers, but I commend the author for not doing so cheaply. Everything that happens in this book is done with intention and fits into the larger narrative that turns a critical eye the lives we construct for ourselves and how we craft that image to the outside.

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