Book Review: The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep by Laurie Faria Stolarz
Terra is a survivor. After the grisly accident that claims the lives of her parents, it takes a lot of work for her to get her life back on track. A stint in a psychiatric hospital to help her cope with her grief is followed by the seemingly compassionate decision to keep her back a school year while she settles into life with her Aunt Dessa, the only local family she has left.
Terra is a fighter. Her parents raised her that way, to be wary, to never become a victim:
Whenever some poor, pathetic girl got something slipped into her drink at a drunken keg party and wound up as News at Eleven, I got an hour-long lecture about personal vigilance and looking out for my friends. Even my thirteenth birthday: while most of the other girls got gift certificates for piercings and highlights, my present included a can of pepper spray and a six-month voucher to work with a personal trainer.
But my parents didn’t get it. I would never become a cliché. I wasn’t anything like those “poor, pathetic girls.”
Or so I believed.
Terra is a victim. As part of trying to reclaim a normal life after her parents’ deaths, she goes to a party at the nearby college with her best friend. A nightmarish series of events finds her abducted and fighting for her life at the bottom of a dried well. When she finally makes her way out several days later, a huge fuss ensues over the girl who’s survived two shockingly terrifying experiences.
Terra is a liar. At least, that’s what some of the people she goes to school with are saying. And then it’s the investigators and the mental health experts who, unable to find any independent corroboration of her ordeal, decide that she must have made it all up for attention. Even her Aunt Dessa begins to treat her differently, refusing to believe that her disappearance was anything but teenage hijinks.
Terra is alone. So when she finds out about Jane Anonymous, a website where the traumatized can go to find support without judgment, she thinks she’s finally found a place where she’ll be believed. The anonymity of the chat rooms there make it easier for her to open up, and she soon develops a friendship with another girl, Peyton, who went through an abduction very similar to her own. But when strange things start happening to Peyton, and no one outside Jane Anonymous will take the girls seriously, Terra will have to start trusting people in real life again if she wants to save her friend:
I want so much to believe him. And maybe part of me even does. But I can’t help remembering: My aunt had said the same—that she wanted to listen too. Jessie and Felix were no different, pledging their friendship allegiance, but then taking said friendship away. Investigators fooled me too—all of them sitting across the table, telling me it was safe to say anything I wanted but then using that same info against me to “prove” my unreliability. The only person who’s taken my word without question is […] Peyton.
Where is she now? How is she doing?
The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep is a frank, often searing look into the trauma that survivors of violence are forced to endure and overcome, and how that’s exacerbated when important people in their lives refuse to believe them. Terra is an unreliable narrator, but her pain feels both palpable and authentic, as she strives to prevent her friend from becoming the victim of someone who might very well be targeting them both. The grace she extends to the people who fail her is both exemplary and, because we readers have been inside her head this whole time, achingly believable.
This novel is also a remarkable interrogation of the very act of storytelling. Apart from chat room logs, the book is told entirely from Terra’s often disjointed perspective, going back and forth in time as her narrative unfolds. This structure serves to remind readers that the truth is subjective and that we all build our own stories, of what we’ll believe and what we’ll stomach, of ourselves and our surroundings. Laurie Faria Stolarz pushes this framing device to its limits in the deeply thoughtful follow-up to her critically acclaimed cult hit, Jane Anonymous, adding metaphysical depth to this already compelling tale of a girl no one will believe. I loved it.