Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review: Jennifer Paddock, A Secret Word

Author: Jennifer Paddock
Publisher/Year: Touchstone, 2004

Jennifer Paddock’s debut novel, A Secret Word, focuses on the stories of three young women from Arkansas. The novel begins in high school, with Leigh, Sarah and Chandler sneaking off to a hurried lunch at the local country club. On the way there, they are pursued by the local high school’s star running back whose car suddenly careens out of control and crashes into a ditch. The girls are shocked by what they witnessed but proceed to their lunch as they assume everything is fine given that “he’s wrecked there twice before.” But everything is not fine, and so begins the troubled futures of these three women who are forever tied to this tragedy and each other no matter what path they decide to traverse.

Paddock alternates the story between her three lead protagonists. There is Leigh, the less privileged of the group, whose drunk and promiscuous mother is a constant source of embarrassment. Leigh first finds work in a local dry cleaners and then in an upscale food market. She marries a local musician, more out of location and convenience then actual desire. In a final emotional scene she finally succeeds in standing up for herself and makes plans to move on with her life.

Both Sarah and Chandler go off to college and then New York. Sarah, the most privileged of the group, aims to be an actress even though her acting coach informs her to stick with tennis. Supported by her rich although distant and much married father, she develops a socially acceptable cocaine habit and begins to become enraptured by her inner turmoil.

Sarah relies heavily on best friend Chandler, was also moves to New York in pursuit of a law degree. She becomes briefly engaged to a man she knows she cannot marry, and then involved with one of her bosses’ whose job she eventually assumes. Quite suddenly she must endure the death of her financially over-burdened father, an event that throws her into a depression she cannot shake until she meets the one man who helps regain control again.

Paddock bounces between the different characters with great ease, allowing each to develop on their own terms and in relation to each other. Their relationships with the various individuals in their lives begin to parallel each other, as each woman strives to balance their angst-filled relationships with ones filled with happiness and a sense of calm. Eventually they come to discover that true strength comes from within, and each sets about exploring and accepting the forces that shape their lives with a renewed sense of vigor and spirit.

Much of the story is culled from Paddock’s own life, from the town in which the girls grow up (Fort Smith) to the father who commits suicide to the marriage in Sewanee, Tennessee. Given that Paddock relied so much on her personal life experiences, it is difficult to criticize the shortcomings of the story without sounding as if the criticism is really aimed at Paddock herself. But suffice it to say, A Secret Word lacks boldness and ingenuity in terms of plot and characters. There is not much new to be had in the story and the characters have a “been there, done that” sheen not easily rubbed away.

In her favor, Paddock does have an interesting and invigorating narrative style that makes the book a most pleasant read. She has a fresh voice that is welcoming, and it pulls the reader into the various plot twists and character eccentricities.

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