MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Family secrets can be the hardest to hide and the most provocative. Author Martha Toll has just written a book, not yet published, but what happens when you keep your most intimate secrets from loved ones? She also explores the idea in her essay on Three Books, where authors recommend three books on one theme.
MARTHA TOLL (Author): (Reading) My sister and I moved my grandmother to a nursing home when she was 107. Clearing out her apartment, we stumble on a box of old papers. A crumbling leather portfolio emerged, overflowing with love poems written in her assertive hand. Love poems? Nana was infamously unsentimental. Our grandfather had been the classic henpecked husband. We were pretty sure these weren't for him.
Despite the long years we spent with Nana, did we really know her? After all, most of us share only a fraction of ourselves with the world. Maybe that's why books about family secrets are so delicious.
In the novel "Tomorrow" by Graham Swift, Paula Hook stays up all night holding an imaginary conversation with her 16-year-old twins. She's compulsively worried about the news that her husband will tell them the next day. Even though Paula and her husband have agreed to the disclosure, she's terrified of her children's judgment, that the revelation will make them disparage her life choices.
What's remarkable here is the author's exploration of her anxiety. More than the actual content of her secret, which today would be commonplace, is the way it's taken over her psyche. I had insomnia right along with her, hoping the truth wouldn't destroy her family.
This same kind of dread infuses Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead." In Gilead, Pastor Ames can't stand to hold his godson's secret. Here again, greater than the concealed information is the pastor's tormented knowledge of it. He swings between contempt and fear for his godson and fury at himself for failing to be more loving and tolerant. Even if I couldn't relate to the reason for the pastor's angst, I clung to his every word as he mapped his internal struggle. Pastor Ames' secret shakes the very foundations of his faith.
For the primal set of family secrets that test faith, try "Genesis." Talk about skeletons in the closet. Consider telling your kids that you murdered Abel. These are crimes that are actually worse than the cover-up.
In "Fallen," author David Maine brilliantly re-creates these "Old Testament" stories. The book runs backward, beginning with Cain on his death bed, Adam and Eve freshly expelled from the Garden. We discover secrets that are literally of biblical proportions. I'm amazed at how riveted I was, even though I knew how it came out.
Is it the secret itself or the guilty knowledge of it that's consuming? So many books revolve around shameful concealments. But aren't there some secrets that mix a little bitter with the sweet? I hope my grandmother's did. Unfortunately, I won't find the answer in a book.
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NORRIS: Martha Toll is the author of a new, unpublished novel about family secrets. She lives in Washington, D.C.
To comment on this essay and read other Three Books reviews, go to the book section of npr.org. You can also find the archive edition of My Guilty Pleasure and the entire You Must Read This list.
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