Reviewed by Tori
A family, their secrets, and the consequences of those secrets sets the stage for Novak’s newest mystery suspense by introducing the main players and explaining the complicated facets that make up their relationships. A somber tone punctuated with bits of quiet humor and a lightweight romance permeates the story as Novak takes great pains to make us understand the volatile nature of this family’s dynamics that exist under its placid surface. Smooth writing and a steady pace introduces an overly controlling mother whose imagined high position in society demands a strict adherence to the rules-her rules. We meet the son who choose drugs and the daughter who choose to marry an “unsuitable man” in order to escape their mother’s influence.
The Lazarow’s are a complicated family. Each member is an important piece of the puzzle but only a small part of the overall picture. Maisey Lazarow has come home to Fairham Island to regroup after a painful divorce and to help her brother, Keith, with his ongoing addiction to drugs. Her husband’s cheating destroyed the final part of Maisey’s heart that was still beating after their baby is found to have died from SIDS and she decides leaving Manhattan and all the memories behind may be the only way to save her sanity and her soul.
Upon arrival, she sees a childhood crush to whom she gave her virginity to in high school, bringing back her anger and embarrassment of his dismissal of her and in essence, flares up her resentment towards her mother, her childhood, and her life in general. Part of this resentment manifests itself when she chooses to reside in the family owned rental property rather than stay at her mother’s house.
When Maisey discovers a metal box filled with baby pictures hidden in the walls of one of the rental homes she assumes they are hers until further investigation proves they can’t be. Maisey has always had faint memories of another little girl in their lives but figures it was just her imagination. That is until she reaches out to her brother and he admits to the same memories. From there Maisey is set out on path that digs deep into her family’s past and finds a mystery that could destroy them all or finally set them free.
Though touted as a romance suspense, I feel it falls more under contemporary mystery or women’s fiction. The main goal of the story is Maisey learning to acknowledge and let go her guilt and anger towards her husband, their child’s death, and her family. The romance for me was soft but endearing and seemed more of a bridge that helps Maisey in her journey towards forgiveness and self discovery. The Secret Sister is a well written story that accomplishes what it sought to do but I wasn’t blown away by it. I had a hard time connecting with the characters beyond a singular level and found the story dragged at certain times; especially in the first half. It’s when the mystery is introduced that the speed and my interest perked up.
The characters are well defined though again there was a subtle barrier between them and me that I was never able to break through. Everyone in the story is an extension of Maisey, used to help or hinder her. Even with this being told from Maisey’s POV, I never really felt I got to know her as well as I wanted to. They talk a good game but the emotional connects between them are so faint, they are almost non-existent. Secrets. Lots and lots of secrets. And perhaps that was intentional. As I stated before, this whole family has buried everything and pretends the world is okay until the cracks in the dam can no longer hold back the flood waters. They explode then shore it all back up quickly and quietly.
Novak does an excellent job exploring Maisey’s and Keith’s childhood, but what I found to be the most powerful aspects was what wasn’t said. Their mother is an abusive, narcissistic, non empathetic woman. Their only source of help was their father, but when he died, so did their only buffer against her. Masiey and her brother survived the best they could but it resulted in the burying everything which in turn manifested into some destructive behavior from them both.
Maisey is a mess. I found myself not always liking or understanding the decisions she made but her emotional barometer isn’t functioning properly and you couldn’t fault her flight or fight mentality. The contrasts in Maisey’s behavior when she is with her family and when she is with others is an interesting juxtaposition and goes far in showing us just how damaged she really is. I will admit her feelings of rejection and anger towards Rafe seemed a bit over the top at times. I never understand men or women who carry that much anger and pain towards an unrequited high school crush. After a few years, you need to let it go. Anything longer then that needs therapy.
Rafe is a solid character but like the others, acts more as a catalyst for Maisey rather a separate entity. Novak gives us insights into his life and past to try an explain where he is at in the present. He had good reasons for rejecting Maisey all those years ago-she lied about her age and he had no idea he was her first sexual partner. They had both been drinking and one thing led to another. He now wants another chance to get to know her as adults but Maisey is lost in her grief, anger, and confusion-not ready to move on from her divorce-though she does send some very mixed signals. Rafe’s daughter, Lainey, requires much of his care and attention and I respected the fact he put his daughter first in his life and she wasn’t used as a plot moppet to force Rafe and Maisey into a relationship. Maisy and Rafe have to build their relationship from the ground up, in spite of their past history, in order to move forward. The stumbling blocks incurred because of this goes far in further showing us the destructive force Maisey’s mother is.
The mystery was the best part of the story for me. Maisey jumps in with both feet, despite warnings and odd tales from family and town residents. She investigates with a tenacity and fierceness that surprised me due to her overall makeup. Once the full story is revealed, I was shocked and pleased by the twisting winding road Novak led us down towards the truth. What you expect and what you get are two very different things.
Though we aren’t given a concrete happy ending, there are questions and certain plotlines left unresolved, the main conflict is resolved and Maisey is given tools and help she needs to move on with her life and break free of the anchor of grief and anger that was weighing her down. I am looking forward to book 2. Maisey’s brother Keith is a complicated man whose demons have a tight hold on him and I am curious to see who he connects with and how he breaks free.