Lowcountry setting enhances 'Secrets'

"The Art of Keeping Secrets" by Patti Callahan Henry. New American Library, $14. 348 pages.

Bottom line: A lyrical story of two women forced to confront their pasts.

There are more than a few male readers who view chick lit, or women's novels, with disdain. If a book doesn't have high-tech weaponry, espionage or dead bodies in it, they're not interested.

That attitude is unfortunate, especially when it results in missing some of the best writing around. And perhaps more important, remaining baffled about the eternal question: What do women really want?

Male readers who dare to delve into Patti Callahan Henry's fifth novel, "The Art of Keeping Secrets," may not learn what women want, but they certainly will discover what women think and feel.

While it's true there are no spies or high-tech weapons in the novel, there are a couple of dead bodies. Both are found in the wreckage of a small plane that crashed two years earlier. One of the victims is Annabelle Murphy's husband, Knox, the pilot who supposedly was flying alone from South Carolina to Colorado for a hunting trip. The other victim is a mystery woman. At least she's a mystery to Annabelle.

As an advice columnist for the local paper, Annabelle is adept at solving readers' problems. But now she is faced with a question of her own that she cannot glibly answer. Was her husband a cheat and a liar? Was her marriage a sham? If that was true, did it mean that everything she believed in was false?

Determined to uncover the truth, Annabelle sets out on a physical and emotional journey that takes her from Marsh Cove, S.C., to the North Carolina coastal town of Newboro. There she meets Sofie Milstead, a dolphin researcher who may have the answers she seeks.

Sofie knows the woman who was on the plane, but she is not ready to reveal her identity or the long-hidden secret that has led her to trust no one except her dolphins.

More secrets emerge the deeper Annabelle digs into the past. For example, there is the painting that Annabelle's husband owned by an artist named Ariadne that no one seems to know but who seems to be connected somehow to the dead woman.

Part romance and part mystery, "The Art of Keeping Secrets" is enhanced by Henry's skillful evocation of the lush literary Lowcountry landscape of Anne Rivers Siddons, Mary Alice Monroe and Dorothea Benton Frank. Describing an ancient magnolia in Annabelle's yard that had become merged with smaller trees, Henry compares it to the myth of Tristan and Isolde, ill-fated lovers who were buried side by side. According to legend, two willows sprang from their graves and grew as one.

"The story made Annabelle think of her own family, her and Knox, their son, Jake, and their daughter, Keeley, all entwined. When the tree expert came and told her that the main tree was being strangled and would need to be cut down, Belle told him to take his chainsaw and his expert advice and climb right back into his dented truck and go home. She knew the magnolia tree and its offshoots would support each other until they all fell together."

In the end, Henry's novel is a lovely, lyrical story of two women's examination of their beliefs and their search for the truth, no matter how painful it might be. Yes, some male readers may be disappointed by the absence of murders and graphic sex, but they'll come away with something far more satisfying —- an intimate glimpse into the wonders of a woman's heart and mind.

> Don O'Briant is a former president of the Southern Book Critics Circle.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Patti Callahan Henry discusses her new novel at the Book Exchange. 6:30 p.m. July 9. 2956 Canton Road, Marietta. 770-427-4848, www.bookexchangemarietta.com.

And at Yawn's Books & More. 6:30 p.m. July 17. 210 E. Main St., Canton. 678-880-1922, www.yawnsbooks.com.

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