I have and will read many books in my lifetime. There will be books – both good and bad – that I will remember because of the lasting impact they made on me. However, there will be books that I thought were good at first, yet they ultimately ended up being forgettable in the long run. In other words, they were average. This essentially sums up my feelings on Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian.
From what I can tell you, Secrets of Eden is about a supposed murder-suicide of Alice and George Hayward – a seemingly happy couple from a small town in Vermont. However, it turns out that the suicide may have actually been another homicide. Secrets unravel as various characters try to figure who was the second killer. The novel itself revolves around four distinct characters: Reverend Stephen Drew – the town’s cynical minister, who baptized Alice the same day that her husband killed her and had an affair with her prior -; Catherine Benincasa – the smart and sassy state district attorney, who possesses a strong moral compass -; Heather Laurent – a best-selling author of books about angels and who relates to the couple’s now orphaned teenager -; and Katie Hayward, the couple’s 15-year old daughter, who has become wise beyond her years.
The novel is divided into four sections, one for each main character mentioned above. Even though Bohjalian creates four distinct characters with this structure, it ultimately creates a whole set of problems. For instance, once a section is done, the book never goes back to that character’s perspective. I wanted to know more about Reverend Drew, especially his relationship with Alice, but I never got that chance because the book felt that it needed to spend time on the other characters. In addition, since the book only allotted so much time for each character, they do not feel as developed as they should be. Even Bohjalian appears to have eventually realized this error because his later books like The Flight Attendant have at most two narrators.
Now, let’s address the white elephant in the room, or shall I say, the angelic elephant in the room – Heather Laurent. Many reviewers have objected to her because of how pointless she was in the overall plot. Ok, she hooks up with Reverend Drew and later gets angry with him for not telling her about his affair with Alice. Additionally, she relates to Katie’s plight because of her own parents’ murder-suicide. I also liked how excerpts from her book are included to reflect the situations that the characters are facing at a particular moment. But other than those three separate instances, I agree with the others in that she contributes nothing to the plot. Heather is essentially a crazy lady who believes in angels. In fact, a minor character even calls her the “Angel of death. I’m telling you: That woman is as stable as a three-legged chair” (p. 182).
Eliminating her could have helped with developing the three other characters, who at least contribute to the story in their own ways.
And the biggest problem of all was that hardly anything happened. The Flight Attendant also had a similar problem, but at least one of its redeeming factors was that the main character was thoroughly developed. As a result, I was interested in seeing how she reacted to certain situations. However, I wanted to feel that way with this book, especially about Reverend Drew and Katie, but my interest waned as other characters shared the spotlight. Moreover, this slowed the pacing down tremendously, which can make it a slog to get through.
Despite my problems with the story, there are two highlights. One was the ending. I know some readers figured out who killed George very early on, but I genuinely did not know. This made it worth it to get through the novel despite its slowness.
The other highlight was the audiobook. The four actors chosen to voice each of the characters brought them to life, more so than the book ever could. Mark Bramhall – an actor who has narrated three other books for Bohjalian (The Night Strangers, Skeletons at the Feast, and The Light in the Ruins) – plays Reverend Drew with cynicism and sincerity as the minister consciously doubts his faith as the investigations go on. Kathe Mazur – an actress known for her role as Dr. Hallerman in American Sniper and for the multiple audiobooks that she has recorded over the years – voices Catherine Benincasa like a character that one might see on NCIS, full of sass and no crap about anything. And that was fine by me. Susan Denaker – an actress who has appeared in the West End, provided voices for Monty Python video games, and has narrated two other Bohjalian novels (Before You Know Kindness and The Double Bind) – plays Heather Laurent with such heavenliness, elegance, and serenity that I almost forgot how pointless her character really was. Rebecca Lowman – an actress who has appeared in shows like CSI: NY and Grey’s Anatomy as well as narrated multiple audiobooks – voices Katie with great maturity while reminding us that she is still a teenager. I heard Lowman narrate before with Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, yet I think this is a more memorable performance.
Overall, I believe Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian was still good, yet it will not be remembered in the long run. Sure, it was boring due to barely anything happening, and Heather was a useless character. On the other hand, it is unique with its four-narrator structure, but it could have been better executed. I also enjoyed how distinct each main character was and the ending. All in all, I highly recommend the audiobook if you want to be distracted from the book’s flaws.
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