"Secret Keepers" by Mindy Friddle: Book Review

"Secret Keepers" by Mindy Friddle St. Martin's, 293 pp., $24.95 Reviewed by David Marshall James Greenville, South Carolina author Mindy Friddle would be the first to second the notion that people are like plants-- they need just the right conditions to grow, to blossom, to bear fruit. In her second novel, the author of 2004's "The Garden Angel" examines a family that has been attempting to bloom for the longest time. The seeds for their reversal of fortune were planted, ironically, by an ardent amateur botanist, William McCann, whose inherited wealth sifted through his fingers while he was traversing the globe, collecting exotic botanical specimens in the hope of establishing a grand arboretum in his hometown, Palmetto, S.C. His passionate obsession drove him to suicide in 1908. Friddle's novel brings the reader into 1987 Palmetto, where multitudinous layers of dust have settled on the remnants of the McCann legacy, literally and figuratively. William's granddaughter, retired teacher Emma McCann Hanley, has lived to see her familial home, Amaranth, fall out of the family and turned into a boardinghouse, then later become a dive for the city's homeless. She has lived to see downtown Palmetto dealt a near-death blow by a shopping mall, McCann Square, built on the site of her grandfather's proposed arboretum. In turn, the mall has been dealt a near-death blow by a grandiose, multilevel shopping complex in the midst of the new suburban sprawl, on what for many years was considered "pasture land." McCann Square has been resurrected as a Christian worship center and enclave of Christian-themed emporia, dubbed Crossroads. It's the focus of life for Emma's daughter Dora's family-- the Quattlebaums. Indeed, it's the be-all, end-all for Dora's scripture-citing, domineering husband, Donny, who wed Dora when she was more than something of a lost soul, having lost her older brother, Will, in Vietnam. Dora remains a lost soul, assuaging her anxieties with almost-maxed-out credit cards. Moreover, she's being forced to revisit her less-than-holy past as her son, Kyle, grows into a teenager and thus a constant reminder of Dora's wild youth, which she would just as soon stay as buried as her great-grandfather's exotic backyard garden at Amaranth. Emma's long-lived marriage to Harold "Hal" Hanley, a retired kitchen-appliance installer, has been less than stellar, although the couple have grown into a mutual acceptance-- she of his gaggle of female admirers, he of her impending plans to travel abroad, following a lifetime of expectations. Emma's and Hal's marriage is in a state of inertia-- an uncomfortable "comfort zone," oxymoronically speaking-- at which it can survive, if not thrive. They are none-too-thrilled with Dora's fanatical husband. Moreover, they are still serving as caretakers for their younger son, Bobby, who suffered a mental breakdown during high school. He has failed to recover "normalcy" since then, in spite of all the medications prescribed for him by an older, aloof physician who is far from proactive in Bobby's overall treatment program. Nevertheless, the family's complacent existence is shattered by an unexpected tragedy, followed by the arrival of an important figure from Dora's past. As the layers of sediment that have settled over these characters are dug back, unsettling secrets are unearthed. However, those allow many of the characters to flower as they had once hoped. Friddle's laudable stylistics are most evident in the first part of the novel, supplying ample proof that she could ascend to the summit of literary accomplishment and recognition. She has a marvelous sense of place and ample skills at characterization, along with a fine sense of pacing. Indeed, those features keep the reader glued to a story that is often predictable, covered with a thick patina of deja vu. However, Friddle proves herself capable of something truly spectacular, particularly if she produces a more remarkable storyline. It needn't be overwrought-- perhaps a Southern family saga covering the first half of the 20th century, with some strong female characters. Still and all, "Secret Keepers" emerges as a better-than-good novel. * * *