Book Review: Tell Us No Secrets by Siena Sterling

Siena Sterling's Tell Us No Secrets describes the bonds between adolescent girls, the pain of betrayal, and the tragic consequences of peer pressure running riot during the Sixties. Read on for Janet Webb's review!

Tell Us No Secrets plays out across the graduation year of four adolescent girls whose lives are inextricably intertwined. Stonybridge School for Girls is an exclusive—but not top-tier—New England boarding school; it’s the school that families choose if their daughters “couldn’t get into a school like Madeira or Miss Porter’s, or if your mother had gone there and it was a family tradition.”

Their graduation year is 1970, a watershed year for teenagers.

During the 1970s, the so-called counterculture that was popular among teens in the ‘60s became more mainstream. Anti-war and government protests continued, and American culture as a whole began to challenge social norms, signs of which were now present in magazines, TV, and other media.

It’s September 10th, 1969—the first day of Senior Year. Meet Karen Mullens, Cassidy Thomas, Abby Madison, and Zoey Spalding. Karen is from Boston, Cassidy hails from the Midwest, Abby from preppy Connecticut, while Zoey lives in New York City. Their reasons for attending Stonybridge are very different. Karen’s middle-class family thinks their daughter will make connections at the school that will serve her well. Cassidy tragically lost her mother when she was young and her family pooled their money to get her a fresh start. Zoey’s parents are divorced and, lately, she’s become estranged from both. Abby comes from a traditional upper-middle class family where boarding school is de rigueur

After three years as classmates, friendships and relationships might seem cemented but that is not the case. Although the timeline wanders through the decades, readers learn as the story opens that the Class of 1970 is haunted by the murder of one of their classmates. What led to such a shockingly tragic event?

Abby and Karen used to be close friends and roommates, as were Cassidy and Zoey. Zoey lays it out to Karen when they return to school for their final year. 

“Anyway, in case you weren’t feeling bad enough already, you should know Cassidy went and stayed at Abby’s for a whole month this summer. In Abby’s family house on Long Island. The Bobbsey Twins on vacation. No, wait, it’s worse than that. They’re so close it’s like they’re sharing every available organ. The Siamese fucking Bobbsey Twins.”

“Abby wasn’t my boyfriend, Zoey. I wasn’t ditched.” A sliver of pride made her say this. She could at least attempt to stand up to Zoey. 

“No shit she wasn’t. And Cassidy wasn’t mine. But don’t pretend we both didn’t get ditched. We were ditched. By our best friends. Who then became best friends. That’s cute, right? It’s almost poetic.”

“I don’t—” 

“Know what to say,” Zoey interrupted, leaning forward. “You’re flummoxed. Because I said what you’ve been thinking. You’re still angry and hurt by what Cass and Abby did. Like me. Except I’m better at not showing it. You’ve put on even more weight this summer.”

“Jesus, Zoey—”

“Hang on. Sit back down. Don’t get offended and leave in a huff. I was trying to help, to tell you you shouldn’t care so much, or at least not show it. I’m sorry if my words wounded you.”

Tell Us No Secrets is Sterling’s debut novel. It’s a psychological thriller that holds its secrets very close to the vest. It would be a crime to say more about the relationship between the four seniors and how it plays out—how eventually a student was murdered. Without giving that away, was there a lit match that caused the senior class to erupt? Yes. Acerbic and articulate Zoey Sterling lays down an irresistible challenge—for each senior to share with her fellow-students when and how she lost her virginity and to rate the experience. One can imagine the peer pressure Zoe’s challenge creates. Tell Us No Secrets ricochets readers back to a time in their lives when friendships weren’t always wrapped up in kindness and loyalty. No, Sterling writes about the “terrible pain of betrayal” and relentlessly shows how a friendship fissure can lead to madness and murder. 

This is a stellar debut, unforgettable and original. 

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