Other People’s Secrets by Meredith Hambrock, a slow-burn thriller, but so much more. There’s humor and pathos and sheer good story telling as the book unfolds. Read my full review.
Other People's Secrets Synopsis
Baby’s down—and could be out for good—when she faces off with forces bent on turning her lakeside paradise into a living hell.
Baby’s heart is in the right place, but she’s got problems—namely, a fierce taste for booze and an on-again, off-again boyfriend who can’t commit. She’s living and working at Oakwood Hills, a crumbling lakeside resort, with her friends, Crystal Nugget and DJ Overalls, reeling since her adoptive mother died of a stroke. And now, the return of the local drug kingpin, Bad Mike, is about to throw her already unstable summer into full-blown chaos.
To make matters worse, the owner of Oakwood Hills announces plans to sell the resort to Amelia, her boyfriend’s wealthy twin sister, who plans to renovate it, sucking the life out of the only home Baby’s ever known. Desperate to thwart the sale, Baby and her friends decide to try to recover a sunken treasure rumored to be sitting at the bottom of the lake. But Bad Mike also has his eyes on the prize and when the search gets criminal, Baby will be forced to walk down a road full of hidden secrets that will change how she sees herself—and her life—forever.
(Crooked Lane Books, 2022)
Meredith Hambrock | Pub Date 09.26.2022 | ISBN 9781639100989 | 288 pages
Other People’s Secrets is a unique standout amongst the usual genre fiction I read and review for many reasons. It’s categorized as a thriller and qualifies as such. But the book is so much more than that. It has a definite literary fiction heft to it as far as writing style and plot scale. And when I say literary, I don’t mean pretentious and boring. I mean it in the sense that Hambrock’s prose provides insight that creates a stronger understanding of the world and of the human condition. As an example, Hambrock uses carefully crafted sentences that often rely heavily on symbolism. And this is a character-driven story rather than one that delivers a fast-paced plot aimed at encouraging the reader to leave behind the problems of reality and to focus squarely on being entertained. Instead, what Hambrock does is open up to her readers a place where its people and its mood can be felt, captured, and understood. This place is Oakwood Hills, a decaying summer resort that has seen better days. It’s on the edge of a lake, inside the mythical nondescript town of Lakeside. The resort features an equally ramshackle dive bar called the Bloody Parrot, which is central to the story.
“Baby hid inside a summer resort on the edge of Bitborough Lake, inside a town so boring it was simply called Lakeside, home to 672 people, inside a dive bar called the Bloody Parrot, with ceilings that were caving in, thick drops of water constantly condensing and falling on heads and shoulders, paint curling off the walls, a constant smell of deep-fried something thick in the air, with a floor so sticky it was impossible to clean.”
The people are a mix of resort workers, meth addicts and drug dealers, summer vacationers, absentee wealthy lakeside vacation homeowners, and others who are either genuinely worn down or who live humbly in this once popular, but declining town, and choose not to move on to more prosperous areas. The story itself centers on a twenty-nine-year-old woman named Jane Doe, but everyone calls her Dumpster Baby, Baby for short, and her group of pals. They all work at the resort and bar during the summers, hoping to earn enough to get through the winters. Amongst their friendships and revelry is a deep sadness and loneliness which both the town and its inhabitants, but particularly Baby, suffer from. When the owner of the resort and bar suddenly sells out and ups sticks for Florida, with their livelihoods put at risk, the gang, led by Baby, conspire to discourage the new owner and stop the changes she has in mind for the resort. They feel certain the new owner will take away their jobs and destroy their beloved town and desperately want to stop her. Their scheme succeeds, but then things go terribly wrong when long kept dangerous secrets surface and lives get put at risk.
In Other People’s Secrets, Hambrock’s narrative serves to widen the lens from individual characters onto the plight of the townspeople in general. She often introduces the reader to minor characters, residents of or visitors to the town who emphasize certain extremities of real life, often cruel in nature (death, crime, drug addiction, poverty, violence, suicide, etc.). The purpose of Hambrock’s method of shaping the primary story in this way is to shape a world, to give feeling and context to a group of people, without having to focus on one person in particular. This allows the story to be about a general community rather than individuals, which allows the conversation to be about a class or type of people, a region, rather than a character. The place, in fact, becomes the person. Besides this, the specific characters Hambrock introduces, such as Baby, DJ Coveralls, Crystal, Marco, Johnny, and Peter Pomoroy, Baby’s on and off rich boyfriend, are all distinct, realistic, and purposeful. Their interactions with one another are interesting and believable, but their internal thought processes are perhaps the most fascinating of all.
Hambrock clearly loves her central character, Baby. She revealed as much in a recent interview with Dawn Ius (Ius, D. 2022, September 30. Up Close: Meredith Hambrock. THE BIG THRILL. https://www.thebigthrill.org/2022/09/up-close-meredith-hambrock).
“I love Baby. She is a fully formed person in my head. I love her so deeply, it’s hard for me to see her flaws as flaws. It’s bad. I think it was hard for me to write her f-boy boyfriend, Peter, to have compassion for him. But I hope I did!”
And why not? Dumpster Baby is an unconventional protagonist—messy and honest. And that makes her fascinating. Also, Hambrock gives her such an unusual backstory. She is known to most as Dumpster Baby (Baby for short) because she was born in a dumpster.
“Dumpster Baby, pink skinned and screaming, was discovered behind a grocery store, nestled on a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Once she was taken into custody, leaving the Cheetos cellophane bag behind, she becomes something unremarkable. Another orphan Jane Doe, case number #45BN6ab9.”
While Baby’s adoptive mother, Hannah, insisted on keeping the official name Jane Doe for her because she thought it was a pretty, innocent name, Baby rebelled, demanding everyone call her Dumpster Baby so she could walk through the world honestly.
I’m now a huge fan of Hambrock’s prose and style. In this book, she offers many passages with incredible descriptions, brief passages that are almost poetic in their beauty. She has a talent for not just seeing but also feeling people and places, then somehow transfiguring these sensations into written language. Hambrock also captures mood and tone with her narrative voice and through her use of dialogue. We learn much about Baby, for instance, without being granted access to Baby’s point of view necessarily. Instead, we learn about her through the way others treat her, through Hambrock’s descriptions of her, and by the way Baby and Peter’s relationship is presented in the narrative. Baby, as one single character, comes to mean much more on the narrative level. She represents a type of person, but because of the straightforward and sometimes raw way Hambrock describes her, she can represent a group of people without becoming incongruous. Ultimately, Hambrock’s prose and straightforward style, with brief interludes of poetic, almost romantic language, suits the tone of the novel and the nature of its characters and plot.
Other People’s Secrets is about people and place, but its purpose is somewhat ambiguous. The emotion and pathos are there, but the reader is allowed simply to bear witness to a community, perhaps even becoming a part of it, without being guided toward feeling one way or another about anyone in the town (even Baby, loved by everyone, but still has many faults). Hambrock allows us to draw our own conclusions and to choose how we feel about each character as we come to know them. Thematically, the book touches on topics like friendship, community, poverty, families, survival, income inequality, and a struggle to find self-worth. There is also a good amount of humor, counterbalancing a relatively somber tone.
Simply put, I adored this book. It’s a richly patterned story spun out in layers to form a coherent and fascinating whole. It’s far from shallow. At times, the surface of the novel is so frothy you may barely notice the deeper currents, or its unique and daring structure. But it’s all there. The story builds up to shocking climax, as long-kept secrets come out. The characters, many of them the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, drive the plot, and Hambrock makes them human and likable (except for those we aren’t supposed to like). You won’t find as much emphasis on crime here as in some thriller genre fiction. But you will encounter a violent drug dealer and other assorted psychopaths. There’s also a treasure hunt. What more could you want? This one is a gem, and I highly recommend it.
I received a copy of the book for review purposes.
Book rating: ★★★★★