A SECRET WORD by Jennifer Paddock


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Uncommonly assured debut about three girls united by a shared tragedy who head off into the world only to find their lives on strangely parallel courses.

Fort Smith, Arkansas (also the author’s hometown), is pretty much like any other small burg: everybody knows everybody’s else’s business, and while most teenagers can’t wait to get out of the place, many soon come orbiting back like errant satellites. Storywriter Paddock focuses on three such teenaged girls with travel itches to scratch, tracking them from 1986 to 2001. Chandler and Sarah are tighter friends and move in more rarified circles than working-class Leigh, but the three are nevertheless bonded for life in tenth grade, when an off-campus lunch trip results in Chandler’s boyfriend dying in a car crash. In separate first-person chapters, Paddock jumps among the trio in the years afterward as the trust fund-enabled Chandler and Sarah saunter off to sample the opportunities in New York while Leigh is stuck working minimum-wage jobs back in Fort Smith. At first, it seems the author is giving decent, generous Leigh short shrift, preferring instead to revel in the glamorous exploits of jet-setting Sarah and morose but similarly silver-spooned Chandler. But once Chandler is brought low by a family tragedy and unexpectedly helped through it by Leigh, who has been an elusive presence in her more privileged friends’ lives since high school, the tables are somewhat turned. Paddock’s narrative is deceptively simple. Her characters neither implausibly obsess over minutiae nor have conveniently placed dramatic episodes; instead, their creator relies on a smoothly authoritative voice to simply carry us through. An unusually generous spirit animates these pages, knowledgeable about shared pain, the call of the big city, disappointments, and secret keeping. Nobody is spared, but no one is punished, either.

Reads less like a novel than the lucky discovery of three secret diaries.

Pub Date: April 5th, 2004
ISBN: 0-7432-4707-8
Page count: 220pp
Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2004