The Secrets We Keep, by Trisha Leaver

In my most recent review, I mentioned a book reading event I went to with my daughters. They each picked out a book, and this was the book my oldest daughter chose. The premise and first chapter intrigued me too—maybe because it’s about a set of twins and my youngest daughters are twins—so I snagged it from her since she hasn’t finished her summer reading yet. I’m so glad I did.

Identical twins Ella and Maddy Lawton couldn’t be more different. Maddy is a fashion-conscious, popular field hockey player and Snow Queen candidate. Ella is none of those; she’s introverted and prefers comfy clothes like sweatshirts and jeans, but she’s an extremely talented artist. The story starts with a frantic call from Maddy asking Ella to pick her up from a party. They argue in the car and get into an accident which leaves Maddy dead. But when Ella wakes up in the hospital—with Maddy’s boyfriend Alex at her side—we discover that everyone believes that Ella is the one who died.

Knowing this premise going into the book, I was curious what circumstances were needed to make everyone believe the wrong twin survived. I’m a big fan of Pixar’s rules of storytelling, particularly #19: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” So I read carefully, looking for the great coincidences to get these characters in trouble. You know what? All the little details that contributed to the mistaken identity didn’t seem like coincidences at all. They all came from places of strong character development of the two sisters, and I won’t spoil your enjoyment of them.

But why would Ella perpetuate the mistaken identity? Why would she actively lie to everyone? Well, there’s the obvious reason of duh, otherwise there wouldn’t be a story, but her rationale makes sense. Upon waking up, she’s understandably disoriented and confused, with traumatic temporary amnesia, etc. But if you woke up to find everyone thinking you were dead and they were happy that your sister survived, you’d be hurt, confused, angry, and so forth. As far as she knows, they didn’t do their due diligence to find out with 100% certainty which twin she was. She’s rightfully a little ticked off. So not only does everyone think she’s dead, but she was driving and killed her beloved sister. With all that self-inflicted guilt, added to everyone being so happy that Maddy’s the one that lived, Ella decides to honor Maddy by giving everyone what they want: She’ll be Maddy, and she’ll carry that secret to the grave if she has to.

She may look just like Maddy. She may be able to figure out Maddy’s wardrobe and make-up to appear more like Maddy. She may be able to “dumb herself down” out of AP classes and into general ones to be Maddy-like. A broken arm conveniently stops her from having to play field hockey like Maddy. But what about kissing Maddy’s boyfriend, especially when her own best friend Josh is mourning and you can’t show any affection with him because he’s not in Maddy’s in-crowd? What about really knowing the inner workings of that in-crowd? What about all the secrets Maddy had that Ella clearly doesn’t know?

What I took most from this book is that who we are—our identity—is a product not only of how we act, but how we interact with others, and who we choose (or choose not) to interact with and why, and the secrets we keep. Face it, we all have secrets and we all have our baggage. Good or bad, it’s a part of who we are. For that reason, we can’t just decide to be someone else because whether we understand their baggage or not, we’re not the one carrying that baggage around. And this is what Ella learns as the story progresses and her secret—her lie—spirals out of control. That’s not a spoiler by any means because the book wouldn’t be enjoyable without the stakes being raised…and they really get raised, and I turned the pages quite quickly.

The supporting cast of characters didn’t come across as fully developed as the sisters, and this would normally cause me to drop down at least a star ranking. But here, it works. Ella isn’t the most reliable narrator, and her thoughts on the characters are jaded because most of the other characters are Maddy’s close friends who really didn’t give Ella the time of day before. The most developed is Josh, as expected because he’s Ella’s best friend, and his character arc was delicately and deftly handled by the author.

The only thing stopping me from giving this a full five-star review is the reveal of Maddy’s secret. It’s big, but I didn’t think it was big enough given the build up to it. But this is a minor quibble, and this was a fast-paced, tightly-plotted, well-detailed, thoroughly enjoyable read. It’s no secret that The Secrets We Keep deserves FOUR AND A HALF STARS.

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The Secrets We Keep is available at Amazon.

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