I spent last weekend at Dept. Con 5, which was billed as Dublin’s biggest YA convention. I found out about it on Instagram, where I follow Savannah Brown because I admire most everything she does and love looking at pictures of her cat (whose name is Ladybug—amazing! Unprecedented! 10/10!). Having never been to a convention of any sort, starting out in Dublin was probably a smart move. It was a relatively small crowd that seemed to have a good sense of community; the Irish writers had friends in the audience and stuck around to hear their fellow authors speak on their work. I can’t say I loved every second of it because I get tired and hungry pretty fast, but let’s say I loved exactly 5/6 of it. That’s a pretty good ratio, so shoutout to Dept. Con 5, which is where I bought my copy of The Truth About Keeping Secrets.
I binge read it in one night and now I’m here to talk to you about it! I know, I know, it came out a while ago, but at least I’m within the same year of publication. That’s better than I usually do. Without further ado, I’m going to stop telling you about my life story and move into talking about the book (I’m going to try and be as spoiler-free as possible, but no promises. If you’re ride-or-die on knowing nothing, I would stop reading here).
It starts off with the image of Sydney’s father lying in his coffin. If you think this is morbid, you’re right. Welcome to The Truth About Keeping Secrets, where the book is about “death, grief, gay” (by the author’s own admission). The setting is small town Ohio, which doesn’t particularly need an introduction. As someone who’s spent a meager two weeks there, those words send a visceral reaction of being held in a vise-grip of community that knows everything about you and can make you feel simultaneously overexposed and incredibly alone.
Sydney’s father was the only therapist in town, and he died in a car crash that Sydney can’t quite believe was an accident. I haven’t written many funeral scenes in my own writing, but when I do the eulogies are always Fault in Our Stars level beautiful and poetic, exactly what the reader needs to hear to get the waterworks going. Brown is supremely brave in not taking that route: Sydney’s eulogy about her dad is stuttering and uncomfortable and implies that maybe one of her father’s patients killed him over a secret. While she’s talking, the Homecoming Queen shows up, and Sydney can’t figure out why.
So that’s the set-up. I wouldn’t say it’s a simple plot, but it’s straightforward. Sydney gets a vaguely threatening and homophobic anonymous text, she reacts, she tries to figure out what’s going on with her father. But the strength of this book isn’t necessarily in the plot. You could call it a thriller but I wouldn’t say that. This is simply Sydney’s story, complete with grief and anxiety and the unique pain of falling in love.
The best parts were towards the beginning, when Sydney was given pages and pages and pages in which to grieve.
The terror of it all was almost funny. Truly. The pain was ludicrous, completely unreasonable, completely alien; I found it impossible to believe that this sort of feeling could even exist, that the boundaries of human suffering extended this far. As I collapsed back into bed, I realized that, if good and bad feelings lived together on a scale, I’d never experience the good equivalent of the badness I was feeling. Ecstasy lives somewhere in the clouds but misery tunnels, deep, deep, to the centre of the Earth and out the other side.
Cockroach flesh. Itchy insides, fingernail-peeling. Pins and needles everywhere, inside, outside, upside down.
It’s not grief captured on a page, but it’s as close as I’ve ever seen.
The story moves beyond this, because it has to in order to keep any semblance of a plot. We move through time fairly quickly, once June is introduced: the Homecoming Queen with a secret, one of Sydney’s father’s patients who takes a particular interest in her. She starts driving Sydney to school, helping her deal with the grief. We can see Sydney falling in love with her and I don’t know about you, but I was chanting “remember her boyfriend, Sydney,” because close female friendships are a minefield of gay pain and Sydney’s been through too much already.
Of course she didn’t listen to me.
June took a breath and spoke, totally devoid of emotion, like she was reading off a grocery list. “I don’t like myself very much.”
How? I said that out loud too. “How?” It wasn’t patronizing, but it wasn’t really meant to be encouraging, either; it just didn’t compute. How could a girl like that not like herself? And then after, without thinking, I told her. “You’re everything.”
June pretended not to have heard. “I just don’t.”
The emotional buildup to this relationship does its job well. It happens slowly, it doesn’t come out of nowhere, Sydney considers how unhealthy it might be and how ill-advised. The foil set up for June, Sydney’s childhood friend Olivia, does her job well. June and Sydney choose each other over the whole middle of the novel.
That and the fact that Sydney has started attending a support group, and meets Leo, who never felt fully real to me which is why I’m not going to talk about him much. He was one of the weaker characters, unfortunately, because he had a lot of potential, but he did end up feeling a little flat. In the end, though, I was just glad Sydney was making more friends. She needed them.
Meanwhile, the thriller plot hasn’t gone away. Whoever is harassing Sydney continues to escalate, nobody believes her when she says something is wrong, classic YA. What changed the game for me was the ending.
I didn’t see the “who” coming. We’re given a beautiful red herring that’s executed perfectly, the clues are there when you comb back through the novel. My main issue with the ending was that it wasn’t given the space to breathe. I think Brown was trying to make a statement with the consequences of the harrasser’s actions, and I agree that 100% happy ending would have felt unrealistic. However, the scene at graduation felt gratuitous. I spent twice as much time thinking about the logistics of it, the outrageousness of the spectacle, than I did feeling any sort of satisfaction at the outcome.
During her panel, Brown said that she and her editor went back and forth over the ending a couple of times. I wouldn’t say the ending ruined the book, but I felt like the author had an endpoint in mind for Sydney’s emotional state, but not much else. If she’d given it 30 more pages, I think it a lot of the problems I had with it could have been eliminated. That said, me calling it “the weakest part of the book” is a totally relative statement. I loved this book. I loved Sydney’s voice, I loved the care taken with regards to representation and diversity, I loved how human and flawed all these characters seemed.
I’m not going to include a quote from the end of the book because I want whoever’s reading this to grab a copy from their local library and read it themselves! It’s somehow both a quick read and a deep one. It has emotional impact but it won’t leave you laid up in bed all day. All the perfect markers of a YA book. And you can support a lovely young creative person who was incredibly kind when I was a nervous wreck at her signing!
Read the book! Only good things will come of it.