Take four teenage girls with diverse personalities and backgrounds. Put them together in a New England boarding school and add some peer pressure to the mix. The end result? One dead teenager and three survivors with a secret to keep for the rest of their lives. Tell Us No Secrets, the debut novel by American journalist Siena Sterling, has all the ingredients for a slow-simmering stew of teenage angst that will leave readers relieved that they are no longer in high school.
Karen, Abby, Zoey, and Cassidy are freshmen at the Stonybridge School for Girls in Lenox, Massachusetts. It’s the late 1960s and society is being changed by free love, the Vietnam War and women’s liberation. However, this group of girls are going through their own upheavals, albeit of a more emotional nature.
Everyone at Stonybridge wants to be Cassidy Thomas’ friend. Bewitchingly beautiful, Cassidy is the most popular girl in school. Zoey Spalding is the rebel, a New York native with a father who is a well-known film director. She excels at causing havoc and upsetting the status quo. Abby Madison comes from an establishment East Coast family with brothers at Harvard and Yale. Zoey dubs her the ‘Un Girl’ because she is so unimpressive and uninteresting. Abby just wants to shake her vanilla image. At least she’s not Karen Mullens, the overly sensitive, overweight girl desperate to fit in. They believe they aren’t like the other girls – they’re different.
How fate brings the four girls together is told from their individual points of view. The narration alternates, offering different perspectives on how they handled certain situations. Whose story do you believe, or is this a quartet of unreliable narrators?
Abby and Karen begin as roommates, while best friends Cassidy and Zoey end up living together. In their senior year, Cassidy and Abby have become friends, forcing Karen to share a room with Zoey, much to Karen’s chagrin. Karen’s anguish quickly transforms into something else – an unsettling, unhealthy obsession with the free-spirited and outspoken Zoey.
What follows is a detailed examination of female friendship, peer pressure and impressionability during a vulnerable period of life. Each character is dealing with their own psychological issues. Cassidy lost her mother when she was young and is still struggling to cope with her absence. When Abby’s family takes her under their wing it fills the void she’s been feeling, but her secret relationship with Abby’s brother, Jeb, may jeopardise her friendship with Abby. Zoey acts out because her father is absent, and Karen has low self-esteem and body image issues as a result of her blonde bombshell mother’s scrutiny.
Karen becomes more rebellious as a result of Zoey’s influence. They come up with what they think will be a fun challenge for the girls: a list posted in the senior common room where everyone adds a star to their name when they lose their virginity and rates the experience. Combining teenage hormones with peer pressure is a recipe for disaster, and emotions boil over when the girls are put into pairs to be tied together for the school’s Friendship Weekend.
It turns out to be anything but friendly, and soon one of them lies dead, the victim of another’s need for vengeance. We know who was in the room with the victim; the mystery isn’t so much who killed her as whether they’ll get away with it. The pace quickens after this incident, and the concluding chapters of Tell Us No Secrets ramp up the suspense.
The author also introduces a second timeline, taking us to 2018 in London, with a 66-year-old woman narrating. Mary, a fellow Stonybridge student, contacts the unnamed narrator hoping to make a documentary about an unsolved death. Mary’s nosiness risks revealing the group’s secret and exposing the guilty party.
Tell Us No Secrets is primarily a coming-of-age story with a big psychological thriller twist about three quarters of the way in. It’s slow-moving, character-driven and draws you into the lives and dramas of the four main characters. The sense of claustrophobia in a juvenile clique is reminiscent of Joanne Harris’ series set in Malbry, Yorkshire, particularly the inclusion of Mr Doherty, a concerned teacher who develops a close relationship with Cassidy. This character also provides a clever diversion that may lead you to a different train of thought.
Siena Sterling herself attended an East Coast boarding school, and Tell Us No Secrets relays that first-hand experience. Her portrayal will entice anyone who enjoys the frictions of a boarding school setting, or stories about female relationships, with a dash of Single White Female thrown in.
For another book on complex female relationships, try Megan Abbott’s The Turnout.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars