Peters, Julie Anne, Keeping You a Secret, Little Brown and Company, 2003,
Somewhere a reviewer compared Julie Anne Peters’ book, Keeping You Secret to Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden. The latter haunted me for ages, so I had high hopes for Peters’ book and I wasn’t disappointed. The story is delightful, heart-wrenching even, and the writing of it is well worth reading the book an extra time to get a closer look.
This is not a book about a theme. Julie Anne Peters is not content just to tell the story of the love between two girls and the difficulty of coming out in a hostile environment, she brings a whole world to life in a way that is both credible and engrossing. She plays skilfully on the readers’ emotions, suspending our expectations, as the limits of current society and that which cannot be said or done, keep resolution tantalisingly at a distance. Literally, the play on proximity and distance and the intense emotions it evokes are summed up by Holland when she prays silently but unsuccessfully to Cece: Touch me. Just once.
I think one of the main reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that I really like Holland, the main character. She’s funny, she’s intelligent, she’s thoughtful, she gets things done, she’s admired by others yet she is sensitive to people’s feelings. Just to give one example, and at the risk of it not being understood out of context, take the moment when Cece hands Holland a note in class inviting her to a concert. Despite the undeclared attraction she feels for the girl, Holland dares reply with a note saying: only if you can keep your hands off me. Causing Cece to burst out laughing. Yet, far from being portrayed as perfect, Holland is confronted with her own limits and in her vulnerability and through her struggle, she becomes all the more likeable.
From the point of view of writing, what I find exemplary is the powerful way the author evokes without going into details, such that the writing remains tight while the story stands enriched as the reader is given leeway to complete the picture. The sound of a match striking, for example, that indicates, without saying so, that Holland’s step-sister has lit another stick of incense. Followed by Holland’s reaction in two words: Damn her. And the story moves on. Or another example, in drawing class, when Holland wonders what she will draw as she stares fascinated at the back of Cece’s head. When we read: I flipped open my sketchbook and began to draw. No more is needed. We know exactly what her drawing will be about.
I also found very effective the author’s use of truncated sentences to depict thought and express the urgency and intense emotions Holland feels. Had to see her. Talk to her. Apologise about the locker room incident. About the assholes in our school. Try to make it right…. This shorthand style gets across a wealth of meaning in so few words: To think. About him – not him. Her. Me. Her and me. Excellent!