From the bestselling author of The Double Bind, Midwives, and Skeletons at the Feast comes a novel of shattered faith, intimate secrets, and the delicate nature of sacrifice.
"There," says Alice Hayward to Reverend Stephen Drew, just after her baptism, and just before going home to the husband who will kill her that evening and then shoot himself. Drew, tortured by the cryptic finality of that short utterance, feels his faith in God slipping away and is saved from despair only by a meeting with Heather Laurent, the author of wildly successful, inspirational books about . . . angels.
Heather survived a childhood that culminated in her own parents' murder-suicide, so she identifies deeply with Alice’s daughter, Katie, offering herself as a mentor to the girl and a shoulder for Stephen – who flees the pulpit to be with Heather and see if there is anything to be salvaged from the spiritual wreckage around him.
But then the State's Attorney begins to suspect that Alice's husband may not have killed himself. . .and finds out that Alice had secrets only her minister knew.
Secrets of Eden is both a haunting literary thriller and a deeply evocative testament to the inner complexities that mark all of our lives. Once again Chris Bohjalian has given us a riveting page-turner in which nothing is precisely what it seems. As one character remarks, “Believe no one. Trust no one. Assume all of our stories are suspect.”
|Publisher:||Random House Audio Publishing Group|
About the Author
CHRIS BOHJALIAN is the critically acclaimed author of twelve novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, and Midwives. His novel, Midwives, was a number one New York Times bestseller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. His work has been translated into more than 25 languages and twice became movies (Midwives and Past the Bleachers). He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.
Visit him at www.ChrisBohjalian.com or on Facebook.
Date of Birth:August 12, 1961
Place of Birth:White Plains, New York
Read an Excerpt
Secrets of EdenA Novel
By Chris Bohjalian
Three Rivers PressCopyright © 2011 Chris Bohjalian
All right reserved.
From Chapter One
As a minister I rarely found the entirety of a Sunday service depressing. But some mornings disease and despair seemed to permeate the congregation like ﬂoodwaters in sandbags, and the only people who stood during the moment when we shared our joys and concerns were those souls who were intimately acquainted with nursing homes, ICUs, and the nearby hospice. Concerns invariably outnumbered joys, but there were some Sundays that were absolute routs, and it would seem that the only people rising up in their pews to speak needed Prozac considerably more than they needed prayer. Or yes, than they needed me.
On those sorts of Sundays, whenever someone would stand and ask for prayers for something relatively minor—a promotion, traveling mercies, a broken leg that surely would mend—I would ﬁnd myself thinking as I stood in the pulpit, Get a spine, you bloody ingrate! Buck up! That lady behind you is about to lose her husband to pancreatic cancer, and you’re whining about your difﬁcult boss? Oh, please! I never said that sort of thing aloud, but I think that’s only because I’m from a particularly mannered suburb of New York City, and so my family has to be drunk to be cutting. I did love my congregation, but I also knew that I had an inordinate number of whiners.
The Sunday service that preceded Alice Hayward’s baptism and death was especially rich in genuine human tragedy, it was just jam-packed with the real McCoy—one long ballad of ceaseless lamentation and pain. Moreover, as a result of that morning’s children’s message and a choir member’s solo, it was also unusually moving. The whiners knew that they couldn’t compete with the legitimate, no- holds- barred sort of torment that was besieging much of the congregation, and so they kept their fannies in their seats and their prayer requests to themselves.
That day we heard from a thirty- four- year- old lawyer who had already endured twelve weeks of radiation for a brain tumor and was now in his second week of chemotherapy. He was on steroids, and so on top of everything else he had to endure the indignity of a sudden physical resemblance to a human blowﬁsh. He gave the children’s message that Sunday, and he told the children—toddlers and girls and boys as old as ten and eleven—who surrounded him at the front of the church how he’d learned in the last three months that while some angels might really have halos and wings, he’d met a great many more who looked an awful lot like regular people. When he started to describe the angels he’d seen—describing, in essence, the members of the church Women’s Circle who drove him back and forth to the hospital, or the folks who ﬁlled his family’s refrigerator with fresh vegetables and homemade carrot juice, or the people who barely knew him yet sent cards and letters—I saw eyes in the congregation grow dewy. And, of course, I knew how badly some of those half- blind old ladies in the Women’s Circle drove, which seemed to me a further indication that there may indeed be angels among us.
Then, after the older children had returned to the pews where their parents were sitting while the younger ones had been escorted to the playroom in the church’s addition so they would be spared the second half of the service (including my sermon), a fellow in the choir with a lush, robust tenor sang “It is well with my soul,” and he sang it without the accompaniment of our organist. Spafford wrote that hymn after his four daughters had drowned when their ship, the Ville de Havre, collided with another vessel and sank. When the tenor’s voice rose for the refrain for the last time, his hands before him and his long ﬁngers steepling together before his chest, the congregation spontaneously joined him. There was a pause when they ﬁnished, followed by a great forward whoosh from the pews as the members of the church as one exhaled in wonder, “Amen....”
And so when it came time for our moment together of caring and sharing (an expression I use without irony, though I admit it sounds vaguely like doggerel and more than a little New Age), the people were primed to pour out their hearts. And they did. I’ve looked back at the notes I scribbled from the pulpit that morning—the names of the people for whom we were supposed to pray and exactly what ailed them—and by any objective measure there really was a lot of horror that day. Cancer and cystic ﬁbrosis and a disease that would cost a newborn her right eye. A car accident. A house ﬁre. A truck bomb in a land far away. We prayed for people dying at home, in area hospitals, at the hospice in the next town. We prayed for healing, we prayed for death (though we used that great euphemism relief ), we prayed for peace. We prayed for peace in souls that were turbulent and for peace in a corner of the world that was in the midst of a civil war.
By the time I began my sermon, I could have been as inspiring as a tax attorney and people would neither have noticed nor cared. I could have been awful—though the truth is, I wasn’t; my words at the very least transcended hollow that morning—and still they would have been moved. They were craving inspiration the way I crave sunlight in January.
Nevertheless, that Sunday service offered a litany of the ways we can die and the catastrophes that can assail us. Who knew that the worst was yet to come? (In theory, I know the answer to that, but we won’t go there. At least not yet.) The particular tragedy that would give our little village its grisly notoriety was still almost a dozen hours away and wouldn’t begin to unfold until the warm front had arrived in the late afternoon and early evening and we had all begun to swelter over our dinners. There was so much still in between: the potluck, the baptism, the word.
Not the word, though I do see it as both the beginning and the end: In the beginning was the Word....
There. That was the word in this case. There.
“There,” Alice Hayward said to me after I had baptized her in the pond that Sunday, a smile on her face that I can only call grim. There.
The baptism immediately followed the Sunday service, a good old- fashioned, once- a- year Baptist dunking in the Brookners’ pond. Behind me I heard the congregation clapping for Alice, including the members of the Women’s Circle, at least one of whom, like me, was aware of what sometimes went on in the house the Haywards had built together on the ridge.
None of them, I know now, had heard what she’d said. But even if they had, I doubt they would have heard in that one word exactly what I did, because that single syllable hadn’t been meant for them. It had been meant only for me.
“There,” I said to Alice in response. Nodding. Agreeing. Af ﬁrming her faith. A single syllable uttered from my own lips. It was the word that gave Alice Hayward all the reassurance she needed to go forward into the death that her husband may have been envisioning for her—perhaps even for the two of them—for years.
From Chapter Seven
My husband is a great guy. It doesn’t take a dirtball like George Hayward or Stephen Drew for me to see that. I think those two have a lot more in common than the reverend ever would be willing to admit.
But that’s the thing about men like that. Total denial. Everyone talks about how a battered woman has a complete unwillingness to admit to herself what’s really going on in her life, and I can tell you that the river Denial is indeed pretty freaking wide in the minds of a lot of those victims. The worst, for me, are those cases where some boyfriend or stepfather is abusing the woman’s daughters, and when we ﬁnally charge the bastard—when the daughter ﬁnally comes for-ward—the woman defends the guy! Takes his side! Insists her own kid must be making this up or exaggerating. Trust me: No twelve- year- old girl exaggerates when Mom’s boyfriend makes her do things to him with her mouth.
And, clearly, Alice Hayward was no stranger to denial herself. When I returned to my ofﬁce that Monday after viewing the mess up in Haverill, I learned that Alice had gotten a temporary relief- from- abuse
order that winter. Had managed to kick her husband’s ornery ass out of the house and—somehow—gotten him to go live for a couple of months at their place on Lake Bomoseen. And then, like so many battered women, had taken him back. Hadn’t even shown up for the hearing a week after the papers were served.
But the men’s rationalizations are even worse. They’ll curl your hair.
Now, Stephen Drew wasn’t using some poor woman’s face as a ﬂoor sander, and he wasn’t inﬂicting himself on some defenseless middle- school girl. (Note I am not being catty and adding “as far as we know.” Because, in my opinion, we do know: He wasn’t.) But he certainly abused his place and his power, and he sure as hell took advantage of women in his congregation. For a minister, the guy had ice in his veins. Lived completely alone, didn’t even have a dog or a cat. He really creeped me out once when he went off on this riff about the Cruciﬁxion as a form of execution. Very scholarly, but later it was clear that even his lawyer had wished he’d dialed down the serial- killer vibe.
And he was, like a lot of the real wife beaters, a great self- deluder.
And, perhaps, a great actor.
That morning I met him, he told me how he’d baptized Alice Hayward the day before and how he should have seen this coming from something she’d said when she came out of the water. I couldn’t decide whether he was overintellectualizing the fact that there was a dead woman in her nightgown on the ﬂoor and a dead guy with half a face on the couch, or whether he was so completely in shock that he was ﬁnding reasons to feel guilty himself. It wasn’t like he had strangled the woman. It wasn’t like he had shot the creep on the sofa.
Shows you what I know.
It was one of my associates, David Dennison, who ﬁrst questioned what really had occurred at the Haywards’ the night they both died. David is the medical examiner. He’s tall and scholarly- looking, and his hair is almost translucently white. His eyes are sunken, a little sad even, but he’s a very funny guy. I’ve worked with three pathologists in two states, and I’ve learned that most MEs are pretty witty. I think if you’re going to do that for a living, you have to appreciate black humor. He’s also an excellent witness, and as a prosecutor I need that in an ME. Cop shows on TV have ruined me: I don’t dare put a dull guy on the stand if I want to keep a jury awake.
In addition, David is a total control freak, and I want that, too. I have seen him go up to a person at a crime scene who is clearly there for the ﬁrst time and politely take their hands and put their ﬁngers together as if they’re praying. The last thing he wants—the last thing any of us want—is for someone to accidentally screw up a key piece of evidence by touching it.
From Chapter Twelve
"Hit me again, you drunken fool! Hit me again!”
Of all the things my parents hissed and screamed and snarled at each other over the years, it is the way my mother sneered those words at my father one Christmas Eve when Amanda and I were in elementary school that comes back to haunt me most often and compels me to pray to my angel for solace and peace. I was ten and Amanda was twelve, and neither of us believed any longer in Santa Claus. The four of us had been with friends of my parents’ for Christmas Eve, an annual gathering of four distant families that always involved massive amounts of drinking among the parents and desperately awkward silences among the children because we all went to different schools. Shortly after midnight my family left, and we were, as usual, the last to leave. In hindsight I have come to realize, my parents were always the last to leave because they were terriﬁed of being alone together in that rambling house and especially in the conﬁned space of the bedroom they were compelled to share.
Our drive home took about an hour, which was how long it would have taken if my father had traveled the two- lane roads at a steady, reasonable speed. Instead, however, as inevitably occurred when he was far too drunk to drive, he would creep along perhaps ten or ﬁfteen miles below the posted speed limit and then accelerate wildly when my mother would say—her breath a nauseating and perhaps ﬂammable blowtorch of Johnnie Walker scotch and Eve cigarettes—that he drove like a granny. A ninny. Or she would goad him on by telling him that she had to pee. And so he would accelerate. He would show her. He would drive like a wild man for the next three or four miles, the car careening across the double yellow line in the center of the black pavement or swerving off the shoulder so the side panels or the roof of the car would be brushed (or scratched) by the leaﬂess tree branches. He would race at sixty and seventy miles an hour on those tortuous roads, decelerating abruptly only when he had narrowly avoided a collision with an oncoming car or he had navigated a turn with only the barest of clearances. That Christmas Eve we lost a hubcap from the right rear tire when he grazed a farmer’s old stone wall a good ten feet off the road—our white Cutlass Supreme traversing in a blink the frozen ground with its patches of rock- hard ice and snow—and I think only Amanda and I understood how close the call had been. (The next day it would be my grandmother, a guest at our house for Christmas, who would inform my parents that the hubcap was gone when she innocently asked them where it was. They were, as they were most Christ mas days, enduring such excruciating hangovers that they didn’t even bother to venture outside to the driveway to take a look.) All the while Amanda prayed beside me in the backseat, her eyes squeezed shut and her lips silently moving. It has crossed my mind numerous times over the years that the only reason we survived that night was my sister’s terriﬁed entreaties to either an angel or God.
When we got home, I presumed that the worst was over. Given my parents’ relationship, there was absolutely no reason to make that assumption. But I did. Amanda went directly to her room, and I went to the den to see if there was anything at all on television other than the Yule log: essentially a televised ﬁreplace with Christmas carols in the background. My mother sat down with me on the couch and tried to wrap her arm around my shoulders, but that night I was resistant to her embraces. She tried to win me over with a remark about how only a year or two earlier I might have been putting out cookies for Santa and then racing upstairs to bed so I would be asleep when he arrived with his reindeer. But I was in no mood to try to add a patina to what had always been a childhood of Christmas Eves marked by my parents’ verbal and, on occasion, physical brawls. Quickly my mother sensed my frame of mind, and even though she was still very drunk, she left. She kissed me on the forehead and stumbled to her feet on shaky legs. She had kicked off her boots as soon as she had walked in the door, but even in her stocking feet she was having trouble negotiating the plush living- room carpet. And then, all alone, I clicked back and forth among the four or ﬁve television stations we had.
It was perhaps ﬁfteen minutes later that my parents began to argue. I will never know precisely what triggered that one, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that soon after they started, I heard the sound of a great amount of glass shattering, and I knew it was the beveled mirror that was suspended by two oak arms above my mother’s dresser—a Victorian piece that I know now was well over one hundred years old. Then my father emerged from the bedroom and stomped toward the top of the stairs, where he paused for a moment at the balcony that ran perhaps ﬁfteen feet along the corridor, his hands in ﬁsts at his sides as he surveyed the ﬁrst ﬂoor. I gazed up at him, but our eyes never met and I wasn’t altogether sure that he had registered I was there on the living- room couch. He was still in the clothes he had worn that evening, though his shirt was untucked and the top three or four buttons were open. His T-shirt was the color of a peach. His wonderful, creosote- black hair, which had been slicked back at the party, looked now as if he had teased it with spaghetti tongs.
My mother appeared behind him in only her panties and blouse, barefoot, and her own hair—a great ﬂaxen mane—was also in disarray. Her lipstick was smeared like a clown’s, and her mascara was dripping in rivulets down the right side of her face. (It’s possible, I imagine, that it was running from her left eye as well, but I recall noticing at the time that for some reason only her right cheek was streaked with makeup.) She was sobbing and she was furious and she threw herself at him, pounding her ﬁsts into his back and shoulders with such force that it looked for a split second as if he would hurtle over the side of the balustrade and fall either one ﬂight into the living room or— worse—a full two ﬂights if he tumbled over the section of balcony that was above the stairs that linked the living room with the ﬁnished basement.
“Stop it!” he yelled, grabbing her ﬁsts in his hands. “Settle the fuck down! You nearly fucking killed me!”
“You stop it, just stop everything!” she screamed back, a demand that, as unreasonable as it was, might have accomplished its intent if she hadn’t added, “You are pathetic. You are just the most pathetic loser.”
“Pathetic? I’m not so fucking drunk I—”
“‘Fucking’? Why don’t you swear some more in front of your children? Why don’t you tell them what you just called me? Heather, do you want to know what your father just called me?” I hadn’t any idea how to respond to this appeal, and so I murmured—not loud enough for them to hear over the din of the television and their own verbal pyrotechnics—“Don’t ﬁght. Please. Don’t ﬁght.” In my mind I see myself curled up on the couch in the red Christmas skirt from Saks Fifth Avenue and the turtleneck dotted with silver snowﬂakes I had worn that evening, a throw pillow clutched in my arms as if it were a stuffed animal. I’m sure I was crying, too.
“You’re a drunk, you know that?” my father told her, and he released her ﬁngers as if they were a ﬁsh he was tossing with two hands into a lake, his arms upraised when the movement was done. “You’re a fucking drunk and the poorest fucking excuse for a mother I’ve ever seen. You’re a shrew and—”
He never ﬁnished the sentence, because my mother, her hands newly freed, slapped him, and the stinging thwap was so loud that his ears must have been ringing. He brought his palm to his cheek and held it there for a moment. And then he slapped her back, so hard that she toppled backward and landed on the carpet near the top step of the stairway, one of her legs beneath her and the other splayed out as if she were a dancer trying and failing to perform a split. Her panties, I saw, were soaked through with her blood, and for a second I was terriﬁed she was badly hurt. But then I remembered: My older sister had just started menstruating and our mother had hoped to demystify the notion of a monthly cycle for both of her girls by telling us that she, too, was in the midst of her period. That night she was so profoundly inebriated that when she had removed her tampon when we’d gotten home, she had forgotten to put in a fresh one.
“You’re drunk,” my father scolded her.
“You’re drunk!” she shouted back. “And you’re a drunk, too! You’re a wretched and feeble excuse for a man! Your own father knows it, your mother knows it, your daughters know it. They know. They know.”
She pushed off against the wall and stood to face him. “They know,” she mocked him one more time, and she glanced down at me for the merest of seconds. And so my father smacked her again, but this time she was prepared for the blow and remained on her feet, though her body fell hard against the wall, her head bouncing like a basketball off the Sheetrock and causing the small framed print of a rosebush near her to quiver.
“They know their mother’s a shrew!” he yelled. “That’s what they know! She’s a fucking, bleeding, harpy shrew who can’t even keep her goddamn underwear clean!”
She dropped her hands to her sides in a posture of absolute submissiveness and hissed, “Hit me again, you drunken fool! Hit me again.”
And so he did.
From Chapter Sixteen
The social workers and the therapists all wanted to know if Dad ever hit me. The short answer is yes. But it’s complicated. I mean, no kid deserves to be hit, but a smart one doesn’t get in the middle of some of the crap that I did. When your mom and dad are in the midst of an electriﬁed- cage match, you steer clear if you want to keep your teeth. (That’s an exaggeration. A: I have never seen a real cage match, just videos of them on YouTube. And B: I have all my teeth. My father never punched me in the mouth.) Twice I made the mistake of thinking I could save my mom alone, and both times I got swatted like one of those gross, slow- moving cluster ﬂies we had in the attic. In all fairness, the ﬁrst time Dad walloped me was a mistake on his part. He hadn’t meant to. He was in one of his moods, and I don’t even remember anymore what set him off, and my mom was crying pathetically. They were both in their bathroom, and I could hear them through the walls, and I was at my wit’s end and totally furious with him. Maybe even furious with both of them for living the same rerun over and over and over. And so I went in to yell at my dad. I was a big-deal thirteen, and I think I was going to tell him to grow up. The scene I walked in on was really weird, because it was after dinner and he was, like, shaving. I knew he was worried that the toy store wasn’t making enough money—even I knew that a shop that sold mostly marionettes and wooden puzzles in an age when everyone wanted a PlayStation or Wii was a pretty lame idea—which meant that he was a little stressed. Still, I have no idea why he was shaving. He was also pretty hammered. I’m amazed he could ﬁgure out which side of the Bic he was supposed to use on his skin. Anyway, I went in with all this determination, and my timing was just perfect. Totally perfect. He was winding up to whack Mom, who was actually on her knees and pleading with him about who knows what, and I walked straight into his knuckles as he swung them back, taking it right on the ear. And I can tell you that ears have a ton of nerves. I guess hearing cells don’t. But the outer ear?
Trust me, it hurt like crazy, and my ears rang for hours. I fell against the frame of the door and then, I’m not sure how, wound up on the ﬂoor, half in the bedroom and half in the bathroom. Dad didn’t even realize what he’d walloped at ﬁrst. I think he thought my head was, like, the door. But my mom knew, and she just threw herself at him, leaping to her feet like a missile, which of course caused him to throw her down onto the ﬂoor beside me. And that’s when my dad looked at me like, “Hello? What are you doing here?”
The other time he did hit me on purpose. It was a year later, and we had begun to ﬁgure out just how much we hated each other: I hated him for what he did to Mom, and he hated me for knowing he was a jerk and mean and pathetic. And that’s the thing—I knew he was pathetic. I don’t care how successful his restaurant or his stores were. My mom wasn’t the loser: He was. And so he probably despised me. But, in all fairness, it was only that one time that he meant to hit me. Just like that evening he nailed me by accident in the bathroom, he hadn’t hit Mom yet. But I could see where it was going. It was a Friday morning, and the bank was experimenting with casual dress on Friday, so the bankers didn’t have to look as formal as usual. Mom was wearing a pair of black jeans. Nice jeans—not mom jeans. They were tight, and she looked very pretty and very young in them. My dad didn’t know she owned them. Anyway, he had left early to play golf that morning, and so my mom had ﬁgured she could wear them to work. Unfortunately, my dad forgot his golf shoes, and so he came back for them and saw what Mom was wearing. His voice got that creepy, sarcastic, I’m- your- daddy tone to it. He almost sounded British when he got like that. And that was always the overture. The warm- up. You knew what was coming next. Mom and I were in the kitchen when he returned, and I was eating a Pop-Tart or something at the counter and making sure I had wedged every binder I would need that day at school into my backpack. (My backpack is always a total wreck.) Mom immediately dropped the lipstick she’d been holding in her ﬁngers into her purse when he started leaning into her. His golf shoes had these pointy metal studs on the soles, and he grabbed one by the top and was holding it like a knife. He ordered her upstairs to the bedroom, where he told her that she was going to put on clothes that didn’t embarrass her or him or his daughter.
And so I told him that Mom’s jeans sure didn’t embarrass me. I said I liked them and thought she looked great. He turned to me and hissed something about how this was none of my business and to get ready for school. I shrugged and held up my backpack with both hands. (And it really did take both hands, because it always seemed to weigh as much as a case of beer, which, just for the record, I only know weighs a ton because I carried them in from the supermarket when I would help Mom with the grocery shopping. In the months after my dad killed my mom, I smoked a lot of dope, but I was never into beer. Too fattening. And it reminded me too much of Dad.) I told him I was all ready for school. And so he said in that case I should go. And Mom said I should, too, and she was practically begging me to get out of the house. But I didn’t want to leave her like this. To leave her to him. So I told my dad that Mom’s jeans were ﬁne and to let it go. I said he didn’t want to miss his tee time. Mom was, like, babbling about how she was going right upstairs to change, she was, and she scooted around Dad so she was between the kitchen and the stairs, and she yelled back at me in a voice that was bizarrely cheerful considering what was going on that I didn’t want to miss the school bus. And I thought, fuck the school bus, this has gone too far. And, in fact, I may even have said that. I can’t recall for sure. All I remember for certain is my dad glaring at me and his eyes getting narrow: Think of a newt. And then, out of the blue, he rammed the toe of the golf shoe into my stomach. It didn’t hurt that much, and it didn’t knock the wind out of me, but it did cause me to drop my backpack and coil up like a spring. My mom screamed at him to stop, but she didn’t need to worry. He was totally shocked at what he’d done. He was stunned. Then he shook his head in disgust and said I was every bit the slut my mom was and walked out of the house with his golf shoes.
That was the only other time he hit me. And it led to the longest cold war my parents ever had. It took him longer than usual to get all syrupy and apologize, maybe because he’d never had the chance that morning to vent the full fury that was always smoldering just underneath his skin. Also, he needed to apologize to me, too, this time. Which he did. I wound up with a new iPod and a hundred bucks on iTunes. I believe it would be months before he would hit Mom again. Not till the autumn, I think. But when he started up again, things would spiral quickly through the holidays. I’m amazed it took Mom until February to ﬁnd the backbone to get the restraining order and kick him out of the house. It wasn’t just that he was becoming so unbearable to be around and so weirdly scary. It was that by then she had Stephen Drew in her life.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian Copyright © 2011 by Chris Bohjalian. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
1. Re-read the quotes that open the book. One is from a leading voice of Enlightenment rationalism, the other from the Bible. Samuel Johnson speaks about loss and sorrow; the quote from Genesis is about the bonds of marriage. What did you think of this unique pairing when you began reading? Now that you’ve finished Secrets of Eden, how do these quotes help shape your understanding of the story?
2. What did you think of the title before you began reading? The phrase “secrets of Eden” appears when Heather Laurent and Reverend Drew are together in New York: “He pulled me against him and said simply, ‘There were no secrets in Eden’” (page 259). What do you think Reverend Drew means by that? What are the secrets in the biblical Eden? Where is the “Eden” in Secrets of Eden? Is it a place? A state of mind? What are the secrets in the story, and who is keeping them? What is gained or lost when these secrets are revealed?
3. Chris Bohjalian is known for writing novels with an evocative sense of place: New England, especially small-town Vermont. How does the setting of Secrets of Eden impact the characters? How is it vital to the story? Could these events have taken place in another landscape, another social context? Why or why not?
PART I: Stephen Drew
4. The novel begins from Reverend Stephen Drew’s perspective. How would you describe his voice as a narrator? Is he sympathetic? Reliable? What is his state of mind? In the first few pages of the first chapter, what does Reverend Drew reveal about himself? About Alice Hayward’s life and death? What does he not reveal? Did you immediately trust his point of view? Why or why not? What words would you use to describe him? Do you think he’d use the same words to describe himself?
5. When he recalls Alice Hayward’s baptism, Reverend Drew remembers the word “there” in a poignant way, comparing the last word Alice spoke to him with Christ’s last words on the cross. Why do you think this simple word —“there”—is given such weighty importance? How is it related to what Reverend Drew calls “the seeds of my estrangement from my calling”
6. Reverend Drew says of his calling to the church: “All I can tell you is I believe I was sent” (page 44). He then delves into a grisly description of the Crucifixion (pages 45–48), recalling the first time he studied it in high school. With what we know about Reverend Drew up to this point, how did this revelation help you understand him? Were you drawn in or repulsed by his fixation?
7. How does Reverend Drew explain his spiritual breakdown? Was there one moment when he lost his faith (Alice’s baptism, her death) or was it the result of a series of events? What kind of response did you have to his breakdown? One of empathy? Curiosity? Suspicion?
PART II: Catherine Benincasa
8. Before we hear from Catherine in her own voice, we see her through Reverend Drew’s eyes. What is your first impression of her from his perspective? Does that impression change once you see things from her point of view? What words would you use to describe Catherine?
9. Catherine says of Reverend Drew, “the guy had ice in his veins . . . a serial-killer vibe” (page 106). How does this compare with how he portrays himself? Do you think Catherine sees Reverend Drew clearly based on what she knows? Is she jumping to conclusions, or making use of her intuition and the hard truths she’s learned throughout her grueling years on the job?
10. At one point, Catherine says, “I know the difference between mourning and grief” (page 193). What do you think she means by this? Do you agree that there’s a difference? How would you describe the reactions, so far, of Reverend Drew, Heather, and Katie to the terrible events they’re faced with—as mourning or grief?
PART III: Heather Laurent
11. By the time we get to the section narrated by Heather, we’ve seen her from both Reverend Drew’s and Catherine Benincasa’s points of view, and we’ve read excerpts from her books. How would you describe her? Do you agree with Drew that she’s “unflappably serene . . . an individual whose competence was manifest and whose sincerity was phosphorescent” (page 65), or do you agree with pathologist David Dennison’s take on her: “‘Angel of death. I’m telling you: That woman is as stable as a three-legged chair’” (page 182)?
12. Heather’s section begins with her description of her first encounter with an angel: she’s a young woman, lost in the depths of depression, and intends to commit suicide (pages 225–232). How would you interpret this moment? What does it reveal about how she deals with the deaths of her parents? About how she sees the world?
13. Reverend Drew and Catherine Benincasa both provide graphic descriptions of crimes and crime scenes—the Haywards’ and others —but Heather’s memories of the violence between her parents is particularly grim. How do you react to reading these passages?
PART IV: Katie Hayward
14. Ending the novel in Katie Hayward’s voice is a provocative choice. What do you think of it? You’ve now seen her from the points of view of Reverend Drew, Catherine, and Heather—how would you describe her? Does she seem like a typical teenager? To borrow Catherine’s distinction, is Katie grieving or in mourning?
15. At one point during a conversation with Katie, Reverend Drew says, “it was one good thing to come out of that awful Sunday night: We were all striving to be better people. To be kind. To be gentler with one another” (page 321). Is this true in the case of the people in this novel? Can good come out of such violence, such painful loss? How does each of the four main characters respond? How does the town in general respond?
16. Re-read the interview between Katie Hayward and Emmet Walker (pages 155–160). Think back to when you read it the first time, before you’d finished the book. Did anything give you pause? Is there anything in Katie’s responses that reveals what we later find out to be true?
17. The novel ends with a revelation. Did it surprise you? How does the author build suspense throughout the novel? Can you find moments of foreshadowing that hint at the ending?
18. Part I ends with Reverend Drew saying, “If there is a lesson to be learned from my fall…it is this: Believe no one. Trust no one. Assume no one really knows anything that matters at all. Because, alas, we don’t. All of our stories are suspect” (page 101). Do you think all the narrators’ stories—Reverend Drew, Catherine, Heather, Katie—are suspect? Is one of them more believable, more reliable, than the others?
19. Pay particular attention to the minor characters: Ginny O’Brien, Emmet Walker, David Dennison, Amanda and Norman, Alice Hayward. What does each minor character reveal about the narrators? How does each move the story forward?
20. Reverend Drew remembers an intimate moment with Alice Hayward in which she asks him to “Remind me who I am” (page 99). How do you understand this need in Alice? What was she looking for in Reverend Drew? Do you think she got it?
21. Excerpts from Heather Laurent’s books are interspersed throughout the novel. Look closely at each excerpt and at what comes before and after. Discuss why you think these are included, and how they impact your reading based on where they appear. Is there a literal connection between what’s happening in the story and what’s happening in Heather Laurent’s books, or is the connection more nuanced? Does one excerpt stand out to you more than the others?
22. Chris Bohjalian’s readers know that his novels often address a significant social issue. Secrets of Eden tackles the tragedy of domestic violence. How did reading this novel influence your understanding of domestic violence?
23. Angels are a recurring image and a major theme in Secrets of Eden. Who sees them? When do they appear? How are they described? How do they affect each character differently? In the end, do the angels provide an image of hope?
A NOTE TO THE READER
In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this book—as well as the ending. If you have not finished reading Secrets of Eden, we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide. Written by Kira Walton.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Chris Bohjalian's novels never let me down, and this is my favorite since Midwives. It's a great read, with characters I cared about and a twisty plot that kept me turning the pages. I couldn't put it down! And the story stayed with me long after I'd finished reading. Lots to talk about. Perfect for my book group!
It is rare for me to randomly pick a book and it be worth the time and effort. This book was one of those, a MASSIVE SURPRISE! I had read several of Bohjalian's books--mostly to mediocre enjoyment. I was hesitant to read this one, but once it was in my hands and I started reading, that was that until the last revelatory page was turned! The story centers around a pastor, a writer, and a town. The pastor has baptized a woman doomed to be murdered and is haunted by what he thinks is a pre-event message from her. The writer is obsessed with what's happening in the town--she focuses on angels and the like. The town itself is trying to reel from the murder-suicide, help the orphan cope, and get past its new grizzly recognition. Bohjalian doesn't miss a beat as he tells a truly masterful, original story.
This story begins with a murder / suicide. After Alice Hayward is baptized she goes home where her husband, George, in one of his rages, strangles her to death before shooting himself. The murder / suicide stuns the town but not as much as the Reverend, who was having an affair with the late wife and the deceased couple's fifteen year old daughter, Katie. Stephen leaves town, but Vermont Deputy State Attorney Catherine Benincasa has doubts and suspects the Reverend of murder. This is a story about spousal abuse and the women who tolerate it. It is also the story of a man having lost his faith and of an orphaned child due to the murder / suicide. The mystery begins with the narration of the local pastor, Stephen Drew. His perspective is of honesty and guilt at not having done more to avert the tragedy. Then through another narrator's eyes, the local investigator of the crime, Prosecuting Attorney, Catherine Benincasa paints a different picture, which seems to blur the Pastor's telling. Third, an aspiring author, Heather Laurent, writing about angels, has her input. Fourth, the fifteen year old orphan, Katie Hayward, daughter of the victims tells her view point. Domestic abuse and the secrets of a marriage take the reader on an unforgettable, compelling journey!
I've been devouring all of Chris' books since I fell in love with the DOUBLE BIND and I have to say that this might be my new favorite. I was completely sucked in from the beginning, Stephen Drew is one of the most interesting, fascinating and well-developed characters I have "met" in a long time. I could NOT put this down, and as usual, Chris Bohjalian delivers a great twist-ending!!!
I was looking forward to this book for months and was not surprised--he once again delivers an amazing emotional journey. A riveting read on those long winter nights.
The book "Secrets of Eden" is about two murders in a small town in Vermont, a traumatic story of domestic violence. The plot to the story is intriguing, and yet, the author seemed to fall from grace of delivering. The story begins with the pastor's voice, Stephen Drew. The facts from his perspective is so incredibly boring. The next person's view is that of the state's attorney, Catherine Benincasa. There was so much added in from her life that didn't give anything to the story. Throughout much of the novel, I find this. It's what I call filler, or added words to take up space. This is ypically seen in term papers from students that need to make up so many words. I wouldn't have expected it from a published author. Another thing I find really annoying about these chapters are the added characters without any introductions. I found myself looking back to see if I missed something...like a page. The next point of view comes from an author who suffered the same tragedy, Heather Laurent, who heard of the event and came to town to support the orphaned daughter. The last person to tell her tale is the orphaned daughter, Katie Hayward. Chris Bohjalian, the author, presented her character throughout the book as a stereotypical speaking teen, as in, her language "I, like totally this or that". Than I noticed her teen language fade in her chapters. That confused me a bit as to whose tale I was reading. I read to the end and Bohjalian waited until the last sentence to reveal "the big mystery". That would have been great in novel that would have been written with "edge of your seat" suspense, but in this case, I just wanted to know so I could stop reading this book. I read it to the end, because the plot had such great potential, I kept hoping for that magnitude. It just isn't here.
I finished this book in the space of two days, with long sittings, mind you. The story pulled me in right away and I was determined to see if I could figure out the mystery, knowing that Chris Bohjalian has been known to throw in an unexpected twist at the end. At one point nearly three-quarters into the story he either intentionally or unintentionally left a piece of foreshadowing that helped me figure it out, though I was not truly sure I was right until the very end. Each of Bohjalian's books seem to touch on a tough subject and this is no different. A couple is immersed in domestic abuse and the people around them, as is the reality, may or may not see it until it is too late. Those who did see the violence are riddled with guilt about not preventing both of their deaths from apparent murder/suicide. What has happened to them as a family is portrayed vividly and the young daughter, friends and loved ones left behind to deal with the aftermath is also quite touching and realistic. I found the way in which the story was told to be very interesting. The author begins by sharing the thoughts of the local pastor, who has lost a congregant whom he was obviously very attached to. His perspective is of honesty and guilt at having not done something more to avert the tragedy. However, just as you let his narrative sink in, the local investigator of the crime begins her opposing narrative. Suddenly, the innocent pastor seems anything but. She calls into question everything you think you learned from his version of the events surrounding the crime. Following the investigator is the wholly different narrative of an author who has become involved in the situation because she relates to the crime. Her parents died in a similar fashion and she becomes intwined in the lives of everyone involved. This is where I was a bit frustrated feeling as if the story was wandering a bit, but it did come back together. Lastly, the teenaged, orphaned daughter of the slain couple tells things from her point of view. The author does a great job of portraying the voice of a teenager and shares her disappointment and longing to understand why her parents came to the end that they did. This is another excellent darkly realistic story by Chris Bohjalian and I definitely recommend it.
I was less that impressed with this book. I knew what the ending was going to be right from the start. I came very close to putting it down and starting a different book ... now I wish I would have.
I absolutely love Chris Bohjalian's novels. Secrets of Eden did not disappoint. He is a great writer who understands the human condition and makes the reader empathize with all of his characters. I love that he broke the novel down into four different parts, each part narrated by a different character who had a very different perception on the deaths of a wife and husband. This novel was absolutely fantastic.
I did not enjoy this book ad would not recommend to friends.
I can barely describe how much I enjoyed this book. As always I feel I know Bohjalian characters as friends. It is a mystery, but one with much more heart than most mysteries. The story development as told by each of the main characters is intriguing. I would highly recommend this book to anyone.
After reading The Double Bind and Skeletons at the Feast I went back and read all the Bohjalian books I could find. Each book is so different then the last unlike some authors who just seem to repeat the same storyline. The new Book; Secrets of Eden seems predictable in some places but as you get further into the story you realize you were surprised after all. This is another fantastic read by a really fantastic writer. I would recommend it highly to anyone! It is especially great for book clubs with guided reading questions provided. If you can only chose one book to read this winter, choose this one!
I LOVED Double Bind, which is one of my favorite all-time books (in my top 5 list), because I was totally blown away with the ending and it haunts me still when i think about it. I also loved Skeletons at the Feast which is a wonderful book. So, I couldn't wait to start reading Secrets of Eden. I hate to say this......but it was just OK in my opinion. I thought parts of it were too slow, and, while I was surprised with the ending, it didn't knock my socks off like Double Bind. There were parts in this book that I had to push myself to keep reading as I was getting bored, but I kept going only because I figured the ending would make all the slow parts worthwhile. I gave this book three stars. It was good. It was OK, but I was a little disappointed maybe because Double Bind and Skeletons at the Feast were SO good.....they're tough acts to follow. I recommended reading Secrets of Eden - it's still better than most books out there now - but it didn't completely live up to my expectations.
It has become a tradition for me to buy Chris Bohjalian's latest book as soon as it's available, read late into the night, and finish it the next day. This was the case with Secrets of Eden which had me hooked from the first few pages. Days later, I'm still completely under its spell, thinking about the characters I feel I came to know and pondering the terrible choices some of them had to face. Secrets of Eden will be on my mind for a long time. I'm equally haunted by the deeply tragic story in this novel, the whole specter of domestic abuse that it reflects, and the profound truth that, in human affairs, things are complex and never quite what they seem. I love the way the story is conveyed through four narrators, thus underscoring the truth that we do so live each in our own reality and, as character Stephen Drew (the small town pastor) says, "all of our stories are suspect." Secrets of Eden is mesmerizing. As the story unfolds, you enter the world of each of the characters and are drawn deep into the tragic event and all it means. And you will be thinking about the sad reality of domestic abuse for a long time. Kudos to Chris Bohjalian for raising our awareness about such an important problem by bringing it to life in this compelling way. What a great story-teller and masterful writer.
In Haverill at the Vermont Baptist Church, Reverend Stephen Drew baptizes Alice Hayward. Afterward, Alice goes home only her spouse George in one of his rages strangles her to death before shooting himself. The murder-suicide stuns the townsfolk, but not as much as the Reverend who was having an affair with the late wife and the deceased couple's fifteen year old daughter Katie. Stephen leaves town, but Vermont Deputy State Attorney Catherine Benincasa has doubts about what occurred and suspects the Reverend got away with murder. Distraught Stephen meets author Heather Laurent whose parents died tragically like that of Katie when she was fourteen. She wants to help him and Katie adjust as she knows at least the teen will never obtain a closure. However, she, like Catherine, begins to wonder if her new lover Stephen killed the couple or just the husband. She leaves him to help the surviving Hayward. Told in the first person in four parts, fans will be hooked throughout. Stephen importunes incredible levels of sympathy from readers who feel his pain in Part I, but that is peeled away in Part II by Catherine (the weakest section) and Part III by Heather until everyone converges with a great finish in Part IV when Katie tells her side of the story. Secrets of Eden is a tremendous character driven conundrum that looks deep at the battered spouse syndrome and its impact on an offspring and to a lesser degree the community that prefers silence from the lambs. Harriet Klausner
The murder-suicide of a couple who were having marital problems shocks a small town in Vermont. The book is told from various points of views as people grapple with this surprising event. The first narrator is Stephen Drew, the local pastor who baptized Alice Hayward on the day she was murdered by her husband. This fact, combined with the previous affair he had with Alice, leaves him wracked with guilt and losing his faith in the aftermath of the murder-suicide. The second narrator, Catherine Benincasa, is a sarcastic attorney who believes that George Hayward didn't commit suicide after killing his wife but was instead murdered by a third person. Heather Laurent, the third narrator, happens to be on a book tour in Vermont the night the Haywards were killed and is instantly reminded of her own parents' murder-suicide. The fourth and final narrator is Katie Hayward, the 15-year-old orphan left behind after her parents' apparent murder-suicide. The audio version has a different person doing the voice of each narrator, which is a nice touch for this kind of book. I particularly liked the reader for Stephen Drew as he really delivered the pathos of the character's situation. It seems that a lot of other people felt only so-so about this book, but I really enjoyed it. I think perhaps the audio version with its multiple readers really helped draw me into the book and into each character's perspective. Like with his previous work The Double Bind, there's a surprise twist at the end of the story. However, also like with The Double Bind, you'll probably see it coming. Still, the last sentence was incredibly powerful. Overall, the book is an engrossing and compelling read.
Looks at a murder suicide from the viewpoint of four different characters. Turns out it isn't a murder suicide as originally suspected...
The subject of this book is domestic abuse/violence and the aftermath of a murder-suicide. As with all of his books, Bohjalian gives a complete picture of the difficult subject he is covering. The story begins with the perspective of the Stephen Drew the pastor of a small town in Vermont. He is devastated by the murder of a one of his flock, and the apparent suicide of her husband. You quickly realize that he is more than the wife's spiritual adviser. The book is also told from the point of view of a celebrity writer named Heather Laurent. She is drawn to the scene because of her memories of her own parents similar tragedy. She becomes involved with the pastor and the orphaned daughter Katie. She writes spiritual books about angels and she feels she can help them FIND their angels. Stephen is surprised when he becomes the focus of the investigation. The investigators find evidence that he had an affair with the wife. They set out to prove that he killed the husband out of rage or, worse, both of them. The story has a twist at the end that you see coming but it is still a page turner.
In the past, I've considered Chris Bohjalian one of my favorite "go to" authors when I want something to read that will engross me and surprise me and offer me something a big different. I loved Law of Similars and Midwives. So I started this book with eagerness and confidence that I was headed for a good reading ride. And, I'm sorry to report, I was disappointed. The plot itself held promise. Alice and her husband have been found dead -- presumably she was strangled by her husband and in a presumed fit of drunken remorse, he then shot himself. But as details about the scene of the bodies emerge, it appears that perhaps someone else shot the husband. And so the mystery unfolds.Partly it was the tone of the different narrators in the book. None of the narrators -- Alice's minister and friend, the DA charged with overseeing the investigation of the deaths, an angel-seeing spiritualist ,and Alice's daughter -- are particularly likable. In fact, the minister was cold and distant and almost smug at times, and Catherine, the DA was even worse, bitter and crudely portrayed. I never really understood why the spiritualist was even in the story, except to muddy the waters a bit. There's a point, to me, where the plot itself just won't carry me forward if I don't care about any of the characters.I'm getting very tired of the tactic of having the narrator shift through the novel. I get that it allows you to get inside the heads of different characters, and that it makes the point that one incident can look very different from different perspectives. Bohjalian did it beautifully in Law of Similars and Midwives, and Jodi Picoult is another author who has used it well. But in their early novels, it was a relatively new (or at least not commonly used) device. Now it just feels tiresome. Mr. Bohjalian, I think you're a very good writer. But this shifting narrators thing feels formulaic and lazy now. We get the point. Try sticking to one character and see if you can tell a story that way. (You too, Ms. Picoult.)So here's my summary. Promising plot, less interesting characters, and an annoyingly predictable ending. It's like Bohjalian has made a template from some of his other novels and used it again to just fill in the blanks. Darn. I expected and wanted something better.Posted by Diane at 9:23 AM 0 commentsEmail This BlogThis! Share to Twitter Share to Facebook
This book was totally disappointing. I have enjoyed many of Chris Bohjalian's previous books as he chooses such diverse topics that you learn a lot about as you read the book. I guess the topic he chose to be "interesting" in this book was angels and auras. While angels and auras have no particular appeal to me, I expected that I would "learn" something. In reality, that element was just superfluous fluff that was "filler" rather than a topic you could build a story around--something he did well in Transister Radio, Midwives, and Law of Similars. Bohjalian had a good core concept to work with (apparent murder/suicide of husband and wife) and it had potential to be interesting. Unfortunately the end product left me feeling that I had totally wasted my time. None of the characters were compelling in any way--didn't particularly like or care about any of them. On top of that, he chose to tell the same story over and over from each of the four main character's point of view without introducing anything new that we didn't already know. The result was redundant--and tiresome. Two stars is generous.
Tedious. Predictable. Knew "who done" it early on. Very trite. don't understand this guy's hype. Over done themes, not originally revamped. Not for me. Gave it two stars because it's a mystery and so many love that genre no matter how hackneyed..
This the February selection for the book club, the first book I have completed since I started going to the club. It is a mystery set in small town Vermont and concerns the murder-suicide of a couple which turns out not to a murder-murder. A local minister who had baptised the wife and was having an affair with her becomes a suspect. The story is told from his point of view as well as the points of view of the daughter and several other characters. Interesting but predictable.
There," says Alice Hayward to Reverend Stephen Drew, just after her baptism, and just before going home to the husband who will kill her that evening and then shoot himself. Drew, tortured by the cryptic finality of that short utterance, feels his faith in God slipping away and is saved from despair only by a meeting with Heather Laurent, the author of wildly successful, inspirational books about . . . angels. Heather survived a childhood that culminated in her parents' murder-suicide, so she identifies deeply with Alice and George's daughter, Katie, offering herself as a mentor to the girl and a shoulder for Stephen - who flees the pulpit to be with Heather and see if there is anything to be salvaged from the spiritual wreckage around him.But then the State's Attorney begins to suspect that Alice's husband may not have killed himself. . .and finds out that Alice had secrets only her minister knew.
This is a domestic violence genre and effects on children orphaned by the disaster. Characters floppy not really any of them I liked and some passages of the book far too long and didn't seem to move the story along. I don¿t think this is Bojahlian's best work.
This is the first book by Chris Bohjalian I've read and I was captured from the beginning. Secrets of Eden takes place in the aftermath of a murder-suicide. The story is told from several perspectives and each perspective offers a new twist into what may have happened and keeps you until the last sentence of the book when the reader discovers what really happened. I look forward to reading other books by this author!