Book Review: Confess To Me by Sharon Doering

Sharon Doering's Confess to Me is a gripping thriller about family secrets, infatuation and the lies we bury to protect ourselves. Heather Hornne is going home in Hunther, Wisconsin after 20 years of running from it. She returns to finally put the past to rest, but uncovers another tragedy. To survive this homecoming, Heather must piece together a toxic history that she long tried to forget.

Heather Bishop has been running away from Hunther, Wisconsin for what feels like a lifetime. Her husband Trevor is also from the same hometown but a decade her senior. Until serendipity brought them together in Chicago, she hadn’t known who he was, as her family had moved away when she was six. Since then they’ve built a solid union, with their own six-year-old daughter Emily as well as Sawyer, his teenage son from his first marriage.

Now all four are back in Hunther despite everyone’s misgivings. Trevor’s mother is dying and needs round-the-clock care, so Heather insists they cut down on his exhausting commute from the city by moving into a rental place closer by. But Heather has an ulterior motive: she’s been getting cryptic, anonymous text messages about the reason her family left Hunther over two decades ago. As far as she knows, they moved away after the suicide of her eldest sister Becky, but the texts allude to something far more sinister lurking in her family history. Propelled by a need for closure, she’s ready to secretly investigate, in hopes of finding a reason to explain why she’s always felt so unmoored from the rest of her kin.

Heather is smart—she’s had to be after surviving life as a homeless runaway in her teens, then going on to thrive as an independent adult with a career and a family of her own—but even she is unprepared for what she’ll unearth as she goes around asking questions:

Part of me had suspected I would learn things fast. In towns like Hunther, word gets around. Everyone knew everybody’s business.

 

The other part of me had suspected I wouldn’t learn a thing. Secluded towns could be tight-lipped. Filled with people whose genealogies went way back, so that even if they didn’t like each other, they covered each other’s tracks. Places like Hunther didn’t have outsiders, skeptics, witnesses, to offer alternative views. People wrote their own history, and in remote municipalities especially, everyone’s narrative synchronized like a school of graceful anchovies, a flash of silver as they turned together.

Her first of several guides through her dimly remembered family history is beautiful young Desiree Moss, a swim instructor she meets on her first day back. Desiree has a way with people but especially with kids, and Emily and Heather both fall quickly under her spell. Desiree reminds Heather of Becky, but Emily has an entirely different viewpoint of her alluring teacher, one she’s almost afraid to share with her mother, who has to prompt her:

“It’s OK, Em. Go ahead, sweetie.”

 

“OK. So. If you die, can Miss Dez be my mom?” Beside me, she shut her eyes hard, bit her lip, and made her tiny hands into fists.

 

Don’t feel sad. She’s a sweet, innocent kid. This had been a complex question, intricate like a knitted glove, but it was comprised of simple knots. One knot being: she had probably worried at some point about me dying because she loved me so much. Another simple knot being: she’d worried about keeping a family unit together. Her idea of a family necessitated a mother.

 

Or, she just likes Desiree more than you.

Heather is a good mom, a by-product of her own mindful need to be the opposite of the alcoholic mom whom she feels failed her, so she doesn’t show Emily how rattled she is by the question. But the further Desiree guides her into the town’s hidden web of secrets and lies, the further Heather moves away from embodying the role of the perfect wife and mother she’s strived so hard to be. Could it be worth it, though, to turn her back if only for a little while on the family she’s made in order to discover the truth about the family she was born into?

Little goes as the characters plan in this deftly plotted, page-turning tale of a woman whose struggle to put her past to rest only leads her deeper into uncovering a criminal conspiracy that could endanger everyone and everything she loves. I greatly enjoyed Sharon Doering’s completely bananas debut, She Lies Close, and found Confess To Me to be a terrific follow-up. Both books feature a heroine who will push her obsessions to the limit in order to finally bring to light the truth about a horrifying crime. Confess To Me also dives into a truly shameful chapter of American medical history and its ongoing impact on society today, even as it examines the malleability of childhood memory.

I want to mention as well how much I loved the little Author’s Note at the end! Like Ms. Doering, I enjoy reading about an author’s interests and influences, and totally had the same question regarding the Tiger King show on Netflix that she so helpfully answers in her note. I do wish more authors would append short essays like this one to their novels: it really enhances the atmosphere and world-building and makes for an even fuller reading experience.

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