Secrets of Eden
February 2010 Indie Next List
— Carol Katsoulis, Anderson's Bookshop, Naperville, IL
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From the bestselling author of The Double Bind, Midwives, and Skeletons at the Feast comes a novel of shattered faith, intimate secrets, and the delicate nature of sacrifice.
"There," says Alice Hayward to Reverend Stephen Drew, just after her baptism, and just before going home to the husband who will kill her that evening and then shoot himself. Drew, tortured by the cryptic finality of that short utterance, feels his faith in God slipping away and is saved from despair only by a meeting with Heather Laurent, the author of wildly successful, inspirational books about . . . angels.
Heather survived a childhood that culminated in her own parents' murder-suicide, so she identifies deeply with Alice’s daughter, Katie, offering herself as a mentor to the girl and a shoulder for Stephen – who flees the pulpit to be with Heather and see if there is anything to be salvaged from the spiritual wreckage around him.
But then the State's Attorney begins to suspect that Alice's husband may not have killed himself. . .and finds out that Alice had secrets only her minister knew.
Secrets of Eden is both a haunting literary thriller and a deeply evocative testament to the inner complexities that mark all of our lives. Once again Chris Bohjalian has given us a riveting page-turner in which nothing is precisely what it seems. As one character remarks, “Believe no one. Trust no one. Assume all of our stories are suspect.”
Praise For Secrets of Eden…
A "Must-Read Book for Spring," Today Show, Weekend Edition
IndieBound Indie Next pick, February 2010
"Superb. . . .Fans of Bohjalian's 11 other novels (including Midwives) know to expect the unexpected and, thanks to his creativity and cunning, readers usually get walloped by one heck of a plot twist by book's end. In Secrets of Eden, the old saw that none of us knows what really goes on in a house when the shades are drawn rings chillingly true."
—Carol Memmott, USA Today
"Superbly written - vivid and horrifying without being melodramatic....a tribute to Bohjalian's storytelling skill."
—The Boston Globe
"Suspenseful. . .searing. . .Bohjalian has written a literary murder mystery that hooks readers early and keeps its secrets until the end. . .Bohjalian's book is about the power of secrets and sacrifice and a warning against jumping to judgment. Those who doubt their faith, he writes, are sometimes the strongest among us."
—Amy Driscoll, The Miami Herald
“Chris Bohjalian has always known how to keep the pages turning. In his latest novel, a small Vermont hamlet has been racked by a well-established couple's apparent murder-suicide. Bohjalian describes the aftermath of that ruinous night in varied voices, effortlessly slipping into the heads of the shaken local pastor, the no-nonsense deputy state attorney, and the best-selling author whose own past draws her to the scene of the crime. . .[A] study of guilt and grief.”
"Page-turning. . .Bohjalian has a knack for creating nuanced, detailed first-person female characters. . .SECRETS OF EDEN speeds along pleasingly as both thriller and character study."
“To call this fine novel a mystery would be like calling the Hallelujah Chorus a nice song. . .Bohjalian has written a gripping story that keeps the reader turning pages to find out what really happened...But there is so much more in this rich story. Bohjalian delves into the profound mysteries of human existence. What is faith? What is love? And who are really the angels among us?"
"[A] suspenseful page-turner...This book will entertain you with its suspense, but it will also make you think about how hurtful secrets can be."
"Secrets are sprinkled throughout a Chris Bohjalian novel like loose change spilled from the pockets of a master storyteller. . .exquisite. . .magic is rediscovered in 'Secrets of Eden.'"
—Tom Mayer, Lake City Reporter
“Bohjalian has built a reputation on his rich characters and immersing readers in diverse subjects—homeopathy, animal rights activism, midwifery—and his latest surely won’t disappoint. The morning after her baptism into the Rev. Stephen Drew’s Vermont Baptist church, Alice Hayward and her abusive husband are found dead in their home, an apparent murder-suicide. Stephen, the novel’s first narrator, is so racked with guilt over his failure to save Alice that he leaves town. Soon, he meets Heather Laurent, the author of a book about angels whose own parents’ marriage also ended in tragedy. Stephen’s deeply sympathetic narration is challenged by the next two narrators: deputy state attorney Catherine Benincasa, whose suspicions are aroused initially by Stephen’s abrupt departure (and then by questions about his relationship with Alice), and Heather, who distances herself from Stephen for similar reasons and risks the trip into her dark past by seeking out Katie, the Haywards’ now-orphaned 15-year-old daughter who puts into play the final pieces of the puzzle, setting things up for a touching twist. Fans of Bohjalian’s more exotic works will miss learning something new, but this is a masterfully human and compassionate tale.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred and boxed review
Bohjalian "drops bombshell clues...and weaves subtle nuances of doubt and intrigue into a taut, read-in-one-sitting murder mystery."
—Booklist, starred and boxed review
"Bohjalian's most splendid accomplishment to date. . .A fantastic choice for book clubs, this novel deals beautifully with controversial topics of domestic abuse, faith, and adultery without resorting to sensationalism. Breathtaking."
—Library Journal, starred review
“Specificity and complexity and. . .a somber power.”
Praise for Skeletons at the Feast
“Suspenseful. . .romantic. . .a deeply satisfying novel.”
-- The Washington Post Book World
"Poignant. . .Harrowing. . . Bohjalian has given us an important addition to the story of World War II."
—The Boston Globe
“Ingenious. . .compelling. . .Judging who's right or wrong is difficult and one senses that's just the way Bohjalian wants it.”
-- Los Angeles Times
“Mixes the nail-biting brutality of The Kite Runner with the emotional intimacy of Anne Frank's diary."
— Austin American-Statesman
Praise for The Double Bind
“The Double Bind is simply one of the best written, most compelling, artfully woven novels to grace bookshelves in years. Immediately after the spellbinding surprise ending, readers will want to begin again at the first page. It’s THAT good.”
– Associated Press
“Artfully constructed and fiercely felt. . . Bohjalian. . .has deliberately wandered into thriller territory. . .He's playing with our minds in a way that ultimately evokes not Fitzgerald but that master of deviousness, Alfred Hitchcock."
— The Miami Herald
"Terrifying. . .Laurel is an unforgettable, vulnerable, complicated character."
—The Los Angeles Times
Crown, 9780307394972, 384pp.
Publication Date: February 2, 2010
About the Author
Visit him at www.ChrisBohjalian.com or on Facebook.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
Re-read the quotes that open the book. One is from a leading voice of Enlightenment rationalism, the other from the Bible. Samuel Johnson speaks about loss and sorrow; the quote from Genesis is about the bonds of marriage. What did you think of this unique pairing when you began reading? Now that you’ve finished Secrets of Eden, how do these quotes help shape your understanding of the story?
What did you think of the title before you began reading? The phrase “secrets of Eden” appears when Heather Laurent and Reverend Drew are together in New York: “He pulled me against him and said simply, ‘There were no secrets in Eden’” (page 259). What do you think Reverend Drew means by that? What are the secrets in the biblical Eden? Where is the “Eden” in Secrets of Eden? Is it a place? A state of mind? What are the secrets in the story, and who is keeping them? What is gained or lost when these secrets are revealed?
Chris Bohjalian is known for writing novels with an evocative sense of place: New England, especially small-town Vermont. How does the setting of Secrets of Eden impact the characters? How is it vital to the story? Could these events have taken place in another landscape, another social context? Why or why not?
PART I: Stephen Drew
The novel begins from Reverend Stephen Drew’s perspective. How would you describe his voice as a narrator? Is he sympathetic? Reliable? What is his state of mind? In the first few pages of the first chapter, what does Reverend Drew reveal about himself? About Alice Hayward’s life and death? What does he not reveal? Did you immediately trust his point of view? Why or why not? What words would you use to describe him? Do you think he’d use the same words to describe himself?
When he recalls Alice Hayward’s baptism, Reverend Drew remembers the word “there” in a poignant way, comparing the last word Alice spoke to him with Christ’s last words on the cross. Why do you think this simple word —“there”—is given such weighty importance? How is it related to what Reverend Drew calls “the seeds of my estrangement from my calling”(page 13)?
Reverend Drew says of his calling to the church: “All I can tell you is I believe I was sent” (page 44). He then delves into a grisly description of the Crucifixion (pages 45–48), recalling the first time he studied it in high school. With what we know about Reverend Drew up to this point, how did this revelation help you understand him? Were you drawn in or repulsed by his fixation?
How does Reverend Drew explain his spiritual breakdown? Was there one moment when he lost his faith (Alice’s baptism, her death) or was it the result of a series of events? What kind of response did you have to his breakdown? One of empathy? Curiosity? Suspicion?
PART II: Catherine Benincasa
Before we hear from Catherine in her own voice, we see her through Reverend Drew’s eyes. What is your first impression of her from his perspective? Does that impression change once you see things from her point of view? What words would you use to describe Catherine?
Catherine says of Reverend Drew, “the guy had ice in his veins . . . a serial-killer vibe” (page 106). How does this compare with how he portrays himself? Do you think Catherine sees Reverend Drew clearly based on what she knows? Is she jumping to conclusions, or making use of her intuition and the hard truths she’s learned throughout her grueling years on the job?
At one point, Catherine says, “I know the difference between mourning and grief” (page 193). What do you think she means by this? Do you agree that there’s a difference? How would you describe the reactions, so far, of Reverend Drew, Heather, and Katie to the terrible events they’re faced with—as mourning or grief?
PART III: Heather Laurent
By the time we get to the section narrated by Heather, we’ve seen her from both Reverend Drew’s and Catherine Benincasa’s points of view, and we’ve read excerpts from her books. How would you describe her? Do you agree with Drew that she’s “unflappably serene . . . an individual whose competence was manifest and whose sincerity was phosphorescent” (page 65), or do you agree with pathologist David Dennison’s take on her: “‘Angel of death. I’m telling you: That woman is as stable as a three-legged chair’” (page 182)?
Heather’s section begins with her description of her first encounter with an angel: she’s a young woman, lost in the depths of depression, and intends to commit suicide (pages 225–232). How would you interpret this moment? What does it reveal about how she deals with the deaths of her parents? About how she sees the world?
Reverend Drew and Catherine Benincasa both provide graphic descriptions of crimes and crime scenes—the Haywards’ and others —but Heather’s memories of the violence between her parents is particularly grim. How do you react to reading these passages?
PART IV: Katie Hayward
Ending the novel in Katie Hayward’s voice is a provocative choice. What do you think of it? You’ve now seen her from the points of view of Reverend Drew, Catherine, and Heather—how would you describe her? Does she seem like a typical teenager? To borrow Catherine’s distinction, is Katie grieving or in mourning?
At one point during a conversation with Katie, Reverend Drew says, “it was one good thing to come out of that awful Sunday night: We were all striving to be better people. To be kind. To be gentler with one another” (page 321). Is this true in the case of the people in this novel? Can good come out of such violence, such painful loss? How does each of the four main characters respond? How does the town in general respond?
Re-read the interview between Katie Hayward and Emmet Walker (pages 155–160). Think back to when you read it the first time, before you’d finished the book. Did anything give you pause? Is there anything in Katie’s responses that reveals what we later find out to be true?
The novel ends with a revelation. Did it surprise you? How does the author build suspense throughout the novel? Can you find moments of foreshadowing that hint at the ending?
Part I ends with Reverend Drew saying, “If there is a lesson to be learned from my fall…it is this: Believe no one. Trust no one. Assume no one really knows anything that matters at all. Because, alas, we don’t. All of our stories are suspect” (page 101). Do you think all the narrators’ stories—Reverend Drew, Catherine, Heather, Katie—are suspect? Is one of them more believable, more reliable, than the others?
Pay particular attention to the minor characters: Ginny O’Brien, Emmet Walker, David Dennison, Amanda and Norman, Alice Hayward. What does each minor character reveal about the narrators? How does each move the story forward?
Reverend Drew remembers an intimate moment with Alice Hayward in which she asks him to “Remind me who I am” (page 99). How do you understand this need in Alice? What was she looking for in Reverend Drew? Do you think she got it?
Excerpts from Heather Laurent’s books are interspersed throughout the novel. Look closely at each excerpt and at what comes before and after. Discuss why you think these are included, and how they impact your reading based on where they appear. Is there a literal connection between what’s happening in the story and what’s happening in Heather Laurent’s books, or is the connection more nuanced? Does one excerpt stand out to you more than the others?
Chris Bohjalian’s readers know that his novels often address a significant social issue. Secrets of Eden tackles the tragedy of domestic violence. How did reading this novel influence your understanding of domestic violence?
Angels are a recurring image and a major theme in Secrets of Eden. Who sees them? When do they appear? How are they described? How do they affect each character differently? In the end, do the angels provide an image of hope?