'All Her Little Secrets' by Wanda Morris
Ellice Littlejohn has secrets. Lots of them. And perhaps that explains why, when she arrives early one morning at the transportation company where she works as an attorney and stumbles across the body of her married lover, Michael, she doesn't immediately call the police. Perhaps that explains it. But it didn't for me. While there were many things I liked about this book—the sense of place (Atlanta, and a cameo by a fictional small town called Chillicothe, GA), the strong depictions of small-town life and complicated family relationships—I had a hard time recovering from that discordant first scene.
I think the author was trying to show how hidden trauma follows a person, making them react in ways that seem inexplicable and even irrational to others, and how one might even act against their own self-interest just to protect that secret. It isn't irrational at all given her background that Ellice Littlejohn (how great is that name for a character, by the way?), accustomed to concealment, does in that moment what she has always done—she pretends.
The secrets Ellice had to protect were significant, I'll give her that. But the connection between them and her actions didn't sync for me. I was also a little thrown by how casually and cursorily she absorbed Michael's death, given that he was a man she had been with for many years. I think she may have gotten teary-eyed once or twice, but not much else. He was a shadow figure, developed so incompletely that I didn't care that he was dead, and didn't see much evidence that Ellice cared either, and that didn't change, even when it became clear he was one of the good guys in the novel. He was less a person than he was a plot device, a catalyst for the later action. I just wished the author had spent more time making him both.
And finally, the mystery at the center of all the nefarious activity and the role that Ellice was being unwittingly enlisted to play in it was sufficiently complex and interesting that I thought it deserved more than the summaries delivered in dialogue during the last seventy-five pages. The plans Ellice uncovered had a lot of interesting potential for development, saying important things about race and power and the limited scope of success permitted minority groups in America, but it was given really short shrift. Instead of sprinkling clues and foreshadowing of the central conspiracy, there were a lot of descriptions of micro-aggressions faced by Black women in corporate America; the kinds of things that would be very difficult to edit out (because believe it or not, not everyone knows that this is a thing) but which I think added little ultimately. The ways in which Ellice uncovered the plot at the center of the novel were also a little unimaginative—inexplicably unlocked computers and desk drawers, overheard conversations—and in some ways unbelievable given the explosive nature of what was being concealed.
In general, I think this novel was for me a problem of plotting, not writing. I liked Ellice, I liked her family and friends and found them fascinating enough to keep reading, but the thrill part of this thriller wasn't there for me. I'll read more from this author, but I can't help but wonder whether she has a good unpublished contemporary family drama lurking on her computer somewhere. Those were the sweet spots in this book for me.
My rating: ⭑⭑⭑