Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dirty Little Secrets review

Dirty Little Secrets
February 2010

16 year-old Lucy Tompkins has been living with a horrible secret. Her mother is a hoarder. Over the years, their house has slowly but surely been transformed into a cesspool of filth. The strain of keeping the outside world from knowing how bad things really are is truly beginning to weigh on her. We immediately see how alien and strange Lucy's world has become when she confesses that she enjoys having a friend, despite how much hard work it is... something she hasn't dared to attempt in years, spending time in isolation at school, lest anyone find out about her horrendous home life. Lucy's older brother and sister moved out of the house as soon as they were legally able, and even they don't realize how much the situation has deteriorated in the short time they've been gone, as they blithely reassure Lucy that she only needs to tough it out another 2 years, then she'll be free... in the meantime, they caution her, don't touch any of mom's stuff, you know how that upsets her.

When Lucy comes home to find her mother dead, buried under a toppling stack of her own magazines, incredibly, unbelievably, the prime driving force of her life, that no one must know, has been so thoroughly, deeply ingrained in her, that rather than calling 9-1-1, or even calling a family member, instead, she decides to try to clean-up the house herself. During the next tense 24 hours, teenaged Lucy attempts to do alone what even a team of fully-geared professional cleaners could not do. As she sifts through her mother's "keepsakes," "collectibles" and "treasures" it's as if she's emptying out a time capsule, slowly going back in time, as she uncovers layer after layer of trash. She reminisces about her mother's increasingly odd behavior, reflects on how it all started (shortly after her dad abandoned the family, her mother's hoarding started in earnest.) She comes across unpaid bills and receipts from her mother's e-bay addiction, toys that she used to love to play with as a girl but lost in the mess, an unappreciated (yet still saved) hand-made gift she made for her mother, and even, incredibly, dead pets buried under the hoard. As Lucy starts to make progress, pitching junk out the window into the yard to dispose of later, even this relatively minor effort does not go unnoticed by the nosy neighbors. Stressed out and overwhelmed, Lucy decides to snatch "one last normal night" for herself, and hits a party with friends, including a boy she's crushing on, reasoning that she will have to figure out a way to deal with her mother's body in the morning. Why is Lucy so callous? It's the way she's been raised. At the heart of her mother's hoarding is her disconnect from other human beings and the way that material objects always seems to take first place.

Returning to her house in the wee hours of dawn, Lucy remembers the final scene from 90's Johnny Depp movie, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and decides to burn the house down, making it look like an accident.

My one quibble with this book was that so much of the story happened in flashbacks. I wished we could have had more scenes while Lucy's mother was still alive. I wished that Lucy could have directly confronted her mother, rather than skirt around her craziness as she simply tries to survive. I wished too, that the other family members had been less selfish -- that at least one of them could have seen the house at its worst and been shocked by it.

Devastating, sad and as riveting as any episode of the television show Hoarders, this short novel will appeal to readers looking for realistic fiction about how a teen rises to the challenge of dealing with a shocking and disgusting situation.

I borrowed this book from the library.


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