In Atonement, a little girl witnesses not only a hot and heavy moment between her sister and a man, but also misinterprets what’s happening, which leads to her believing that later—when a girl is sexually assaulted—this man is to blame. The little girl, Briony, grows up to become a buttoned-up nurse, but she’s led her sister and her sister’s lover on a course that she doesn’t understand or know about until later. Secrets are tucked away in misunderstandings, and misunderstandings can be treated as secrets revealed. Gossip and malicious intent and stories can be confused so that sometimes, what is revealed is not the right secret: and this, Briony finds, has consequences that extend long into the future.
A Little Princess
Frances Hodgson Burnett
In this classic of the early 20th century, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s protagonist goes through trials and tribulations when she’s moved to London after growing up in India. Sara first finds herself challenged by other girls in the schoolroom, and later in the attic and the scullery, until she’s once again in the schoolroom, but as an unpaid tutor. She grows up believing her beloved father, the most important man in the world to her, died a failure and a cheat, leaving nothing to anyone. But as a mysterious benefactor begins sending Sara clothes, and her headmistress gets scared of who might be out there interested in claiming the little orphan, Sara will learn that something altogether different happened to her diamond-seeking father.
Daphne du Maurier
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This is the first line of the famous and never-yet-out-of-print novel by Daphne du Maurier (the most famous film iteration of which is Alfred Hitchcock’s). The unnamed narrator marries a man after only two weeks of knowing him and moves with him to his estate, where his housekeeper begins to gaslight her, comparing her to the first wife, Rebecca, who was perfect in every way. As the new missus is constantly compared to the old one, almost convinced to commit suicide, and is generally driven mad, she begins to find out that her husband’s first marriage was not all that it seemed. A classic mystery with one of the best and most complex secrets a family can have, Rebecca is worth a read (and a reread, too).
Who is Ladivine? Ladivine is two people. She’s a mother hidden from a family, and a daughter bearing a name mysterious to her. She’s the secret Clarisse Rivière hides from her husband and daughter. She’s the daughter of Clarisse Rivière. Why is Clarisse hiding her mother from her new family and her new family from her mother? What happens when the secrets she keeps become too much to bear? What happens when she ends up murdered, leaving a daughter to figure out where her name came from, where her mother came from, and to uncover the truth? Translated from the French, Marie NDiaye’s novel is brilliantly contoured and beautifully explorative.
While you may already know the secret buried at the center of orphan Jane Eyre’s conflict, it’s nevertheless a shocking and important one. Besides, the famous Bertha in the attic isn’t necessarily the only family secret in the book. What really happens in the red room when Jane is a child being terrorized by her older cousin? And what of the cousins she finds after she flees Mr. Rochester? Jane Eyre is a narrator who doesn’t reveal all, kept to the propriety of her time. And if you’ve never read the book and have no idea who Bertha is—even better. Go read it now, and learn how secretive Jane’s whole world is shrouded in shades of darkness and fear.
The Memory Keeper's Daughter
In Kim Edward’s novel, a doctor spends a dark and stormy night delivering twins—his own twin girls. When he sees that one of them has Down syndrome, he gives her away, telling his wife, Norah, that the child died. He thinks that he’s protecting her, but instead she falls into despondency over the loss. The woman to whom the doctor gave the (to him, unsatisfactory) baby girl was supposed to bring her to an institution—but instead, she raises the girl as her own. Following the parallel paths of these two families, Edwards puts together a tale of choices and secrets, memories forcibly pushed away and re-remembered.
Leo Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are alike, but that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way. Whether or not that’s true, we have to agree that unhappiness and hardship come in all shapes and sizes. Similarly—and this we think is universal to pretty much all families—secrets can cause discord and discontent within their ranks. Maybe that’s why we love reading books about secretive families, so as to avoid dealing with our own. These are books we love to disappear in, books we love to escape with, and books we love to be a little voyeuristic about.
While these are all fictional families, we’re also obsessed with true stories of family secrets. Dani Shapiro’s memoir, Inheritance, is one such a story. In it, she describes finding out from a DNA test and genealogy website that her father was not her biological father and her own life story had been hidden from her for over fifty years. Since publishing her memoir, Shapiro has launched her own podcast, called Family Secrets, wherein other people share their own family secrets. Listen here to explore how family secrets shape us, distort us and … liberate us.