Adolescence is a fascinating time for young people. Emotions are intensified, logic only occasionally applies to life and everything feels both crucial and pointless at the same time. In the last few years there has been an enormous increase in novels about teenagers, or more specifically, about teenage girls. I have loved many of those whole also despairing at a fair few. So when I saw Secrets of Southern Girls I knew I had to give it a try. And boy did I have a great time with this novel! Thanks to SOURCEBOOKS Landmark and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book.
Pub. Date: 06/06/2017
Publisher: SOURCEBOOKS Landmark
In Secrets of Southern Girls, the powerful, affecting debut from Haley Harrigan, a young woman uncovers devastating secrets about the friend she thinks she killed…
Ten years ago, Julie Portland accidentally killed her best friend, Reba. What’s worse is she got away with it. Consumed by guilt, she left the small town of Lawrence Mill, Mississippi, and swore nothing would ever drag her back.
Now, raising her daughter and struggling to make ends meet in Manhattan, Julie still can’t forget the ghost of a girl with golden hair and a dangerous secret.
When August, Reba’s first love, begs Julie to come home to find the diary that Reba kept all those years ago, Julie’s past comes creeping back to haunt her. That diary could expose the shameful memories Julie has been running from, but it could also unearth the hidden truths that Reba left buried…and reveal that Julie isn’t the only one who feels responsible for Reba’s death.
In fact, she may not be responsible at all.
I both adore and suspect novels that have the word ‘girl’ in their title. On the one hand they thrill me, as they explore the underbelly of female friendships, dig into the budding sexuality of teenage girls and cast a light on the pressures of growing up female. On the other hand, I fear how they play into damaging stereotypes. Most female friendships aren’t toxic or abusive, high school isn’t always hell and parents aren’t always out of touch. Perhaps I also dislike the use of ‘girl’ because the girls described in the novels often aren’t allowed to be young or innocent for very long. (Also, actress Mayim Balik excellently summed up what else is wrong with the consistent use of ‘girl’ for grown women.) Yet this latter is again also a reason for why I love ‘girl’ novels. Because teenage girls are hardly ever children for very long and these novels shine a light on the many external pressures that harden and form these “girls”. With all these conflicting feelings coming together, starting a novel such as Girls on Fire, The Girls or Secrets of Southern Girls is always a little bit nerve-wracking. Thankfully, in the case of each of these three books, my bravery was rewarded.
Secrets of Southern Girls might sound like a rather straightforward novel but it isn’t. Harrigan combines the narration of several different characters in two different time lines. Julie lives in New York, often on edge and craving intimacy that she cannot allow herself to deserve. When she is found by someone from her past, she is presented with the chance to return to the town where she grew up and confront the events that have haunted her for years. By combining the story of the teenage girl and the grown woman, Harrigan is able to both allow for the perhaps over-the-top intensity of teenage emotions, while also relativizing it through the gaze of the adult. Julie’s story is informed by the diary of Reba, which tells a story perhaps no one wants to hear. The interplay between their two stories, how they reveal almost more by what they don’t say, makes for a thrilling read where each chapter reveals something new.
What is fascinating about Secrets of Southern Girls is its attention to the lies we tell to ourselves and to others. Both Julie and Reba, as well as many of the side characters, often don’t even realize how much they perform their own identify until they are truly all alone with themselves. It is what makes novels about ‘girls’ so interesting, that they explore the inadvertent duplicity at the heart of teenagers, the accidental performance that is their behaviour. This counts for both girls and boys and, despite the title, the latter definitionly have a role to play in Secrets of Southern Girls. Each character in Harrigan’s novel has something to hide, some things more scandalous than others, and these secrets leave their lifelong marks almost casually. I know woefully little about the American South, and I must admit that it’s an area I feel occasionally suspicious about. It makes a perfect backdrop for Harrigan’s girls, however. She brings in a whole variety of external pressures; class, race, religion, and gender all pop up and help form these girls and boys. The smallest thing becomes something worth treasuring and hiding, being infinitally more valuable by being secret.
Harrigan’s writing is very engaging, both direct and lyrical at the same time. She nails both the teenage and the adult voices of her characters, which is no easy task. At times Secrets of Southern Girls does slip into certain YA clichés, but often Harrigan finds an interesting way out of them. Although it took me a chapter or two to truly catch onto the feel of the novel, I was completely engaged once I did. Harrigan makes you care for her characters and you want to see them happy and whole, even while you fear there is no such thing for most people. The whodunit aspect of the plot is interesting, but since, at least for me, it is not what lies at the heart of the novel, it is not as intriguing as it could be. As said above, the reveals about the characters’ perceptions of themselves and others are much more interesting and are the “true secrets” of Harrigan’s Southern girls.
I give this novel…
Once Secrets of Southern Girls caught me it didn’t let me go. I had to keep going back to it until I was finished, and then I was left with questions. But it also left me with an appreciation for how we change, as people, how we both learn from our past and don’t unless we actively address it. I’d recommend this novel to fans of YA and suspense novels. I’d also recommend you scroll further down and join the giveaway to win your very own copy of Secrets of Southern Girls. Trust me, it will make the perfect summer read!
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