The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham

I am most familiar with Australian author Michael Robotham’s series of novels featuring protagonist Joe O’Loughlin, and I have recommended him to many people without hesitation. When I received a copy of his latest, The Secrets She Keeps, from Scribner and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review, I had no idea what the premise was, whether it was an O’Loughlin book, or something new and different. And it WAS different – for sure. This is the story of two women who are apparently pregnant at the same time. One of them, Agatha, works at a supermarket, isn’t married, and spends a lot of time and energy dreaming of the life she doesn’t have (especially the roles of wife and mother). She watches (and seriously at first her stalking really creeped me out) Meghan, a beautiful mother of two seemingly perfect children, wife to a good-looking television personality, whose pregnancy seems about as far along as Agatha’s own.

We learn that although everything LOOKS perfect. Meghan is restless in her marriage: “…sometimes I rake my memory to find moments that make me truly happy.” Told in the alternating points of view of these two women, a recurring theme of honesty and trust is voiced by Meghan early on: “Anyone who says that honesty is the best policy is living in la-la land. Either that or they have never been married or had children. Parents lie to their kids all the time—about sex, drugs, death, and a hundred other things. We lie to those we love to protect their feelings. We lie because that’s what love means, whereas unfettered honesty is cruel and the height of self-indulgence.”

Agatha is no less unsettled: “How can she ever understand my life? What it’s like to live in a cramped, claustrophobic tunnel that gets smaller and darker as each year passes.” Much of her viewpoint is revealed when she says to Meghan “I am an outlier. I am the incredible disappearing woman. I am childless. Less of a person. Not in the club. You take those things for granted.”

Agatha wants the life she thinks Meghan has. Meghan sees Agatha as a familiar face from her shopping trips and yoga class, but little does Meghan know that the ho-hum exchange she has with a store employee during her hurried afternoon shopping trip is about to change the course of her not-so-perfect life!

It’s quite the page-turner, as the characters of the women and their families are revealed in alternating chapters. I was somewhat skeptical about Mr. Robotham’s ability to write from the perspective of two different pregnant women, but he did it with his usual outstanding plot development and attention to details of the characters’ personalities. Never having been pregnant myself, lots of the feelings about pregnancy were unfamiliar – but the lines about childlessness really resonated. I take off one star just because I wasn’t wild about the ending, but I really did enjoy reading it (in pretty much one sitting – I was riveted). Four stars.

Opening Up by Writing It Down by James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth

 

Cover Pennebaker Opening Up by Writing down

I was somewhat familiar with Dr. Pennebaker’s work through his 2014 title Expressive Writing: Words That Heal, and as a lifelong journal keeper, his ideas have always resonated with me. So I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain from NetGalley and Guilford Publications in exchange for my honest review.

As I read it, I kept thinking I should check with my therapist to be sure she has this book – as it is packed with what might be considered technical/academic data. It actually wan’t until I go to the final chapter that I found what was, for me, the most helpful information. This chapter includes an overall summary and specific instructions for therapeutic writing exercises. Although some of the earlier chapters do include various exercises, my own preference is for writing exercises to be included at the end of corresponding so I can easily go back and find the exercises related to a particular topic. But, that’s just a personal preference.

Writing comes easily to me, so it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that making it a habit would be easily accomplished. As noted above, this concept isn’t new to me, so I was somewhat predisposed to like this! I plan to recommend it to people I KNOW are not writers, but who I think might benefit from reading this book. Overall, I gave Opening Up by Writing It Down a rating of 4 stars.
 

Shades of Blue by Amy Ferris

shades of blue cover

Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue

By Amy Ferris

For starters, this book is amazing. Amy Ferris has gathered writings about a subject that is close to my heart, and the result is a powerful, gut-wrenching, piercing look into a topic that is too often stigmatized, hidden, shame-based, you name it, there just aren’t many positive terms that come to mind around this topic. And yet, people in the grip of this affliction (or living with someone who battles the “black dog” of depression) can really benefit from the realization that they are not alone. So why was I so negative about this book when I read it?

OK, so I guess it really IS all about me!! 🙂

And why do I think this book is amazing? A psychiatric nurse who wrote about this book put it this way: “The crushing isolation of depression gets a few shades lighter each time someone realizes…”I’m not alone. I’m connected to a bigger picture.”’ Thank you for this beautiful and necessary book.”

I couldn’t agree more. And yet, when I wrote in my journal about this book, after spending two full days with it while on vacation, I said:

Only 3 types of people would read this:

  1. Someone in prison who goes to the prison library and finds every other book is checked out
  2. People who are really into the topic of depression, falling into two categories:
    1. Therapists/caregivers
    2. Depressives

It is SO honest, and I found I became seriously depressed reading this book. Early on, I recognized myself in quotes such as “Among the many things that make me who I am is the fact that I am a person with a clinical disorder. I’ve been on five different antidepressants since I was a teenager…” And “I hate taking the medication. The idea that I cannot fully function without it breaks my heart on a regular basis, but I can’t stop taking it. I’ve tried.”

These are things that resonate with me, and I am sure with many people who have felt the slide toward the black hole. (NOTE: I am not identifying the authors of any of the quotes in this review—and confess I am somewhat afraid to go back and read it right now…having just recovered what feels like equilibrium following the deep despair I felt after reading it. Seriously, on the bright side (often an unfamiliar landscape for me), in retrospect I realize that it was equal parts despair (reading about the reality of this affliction) and hope (as I realized people CAN — and I often DO– recognize the “warning signs” and avoid the big slide toward the black hole).

Several of the writings captured the reality of the affliction:

  • “I now accept, without doubt, that depression is purely a result of the chemicals swimming in our brains, and we can choose those chemicals.”
  • “The stigma and shame of depression linger. No one brings you casseroles or calls you a heroine when you’re depressed.”
  • “Terrible things happen—they go on happening all your life, but here’s what I discovered: anguish, unhappiness, sadness, fear, loneliness, and grief are not the same as depression. It can all hurt as much as depression, but you are not paralyzed. You keep breathing. And the lovely surprise of growing older is that most of us get happier. If you’re lucky and have decent health, friends, a roof over your head, food on the table, and something you love to get up and do every day – you calm down. You no longer want to throw yourself off a balcony.”
  • “Sleep, when it comes, is full of nightmares. You awaken in the middle of the night, terrified, and filled with disgust at your terror. Morning arrives and you do not feel rested.”

 Despite being dragged down by the writing (admittedly, reading it ALL in two days may not have been the best idea), I also now realize after pondering it for a week or more, that I got hope from several statements:

  • one writer “found my ability to travel alone to the kinds of gorgeous places I had once only romanticized about: beaches and vacation and…”
  • I have had other bouts of depression, but I have learned to catch myself at the top of the spiral before I begin that terrifying descent. I heed those first warning signs—self-deprecating thoughts and debilitation anxiety—and, with the help of medication, I know I can stop the fall.”

Fundamentally, the book reiterated what I have come to admit: I am complicit in perpetuating the negative stigma that is all too real, even today. Several years ago, I decided that I would help break down some of the barriers, and talk about my experiences. I soon realized that my boss was emphatically NOT sympathetic, and that my workplace environment would be much less pleasant if I admitted to “having problems.” And that, as my aunt told me, some members of my family would not react well…my penchant for being “too straightforward” was not likely to be met with hugs and warm supportive responses. I decided it was all I could do to just maintain my hold on the life I had created as I learned to “deal with it,” and I crept back into silence. I have also learned from conversations with my niece that there really are people (even family members!) who understand and who can both benefit from my experience and provide support when I need it.

To sum it up: “To look at most of us, you’d never know. We compensate so well, we look so normal. We’ve kept the silence. We’ve perpetuated the stigma. “

<sigh> But I like to think that everyone does the best they can to get through each day!

I so appreciate this book…although it may not be easy reading, especially for those who see themselves in these pages, it really can help people realize they are NOT alone! Much gratitude to NetGalley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my review. Again, powerful stuff, and not for everyone, or maybe just not necessarily at any time (for me, it’s a trigger, apparently, to delve so deeply into someone else’s anguish) but just for the honesty alone, it is worth five stars.