Big Lies in a Small Town
by Diane Chamberlain
Publication: St. Martin’s Press; January 14, 2020
North Carolina, 2018: Morgan Christopher’s life has been derailed. Taking the fall for a crime she did not commit, she finds herself serving a three-year stint in the North Carolina Women’s Correctional Center. Her dream of a career in art is put on hold—until a mysterious visitor makes her an offer that will see her released immediately. Her assignment: restore an old post office mural in a sleepy southern town. Morgan knows nothing about art restoration, but desperate to leave prison, she accepts. What she finds under the layers of grime is a painting that tells the story of madness, violence, and a conspiracy of small-town secrets.
North Carolina, 1940: Anna Dale, an artist from New Jersey, wins a national contest to paint a mural for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina. Alone in the world and desperate for work, she accepts. But what she doesn’t expect is to find herself immersed in a town where prejudices run deep, where people are hiding secrets behind closed doors, and where the price of being different might just end in murder.
What happened to Anna Dale? Are the clues hidden in the decrepit mural? Can Morgan overcome her own demons to discover what exists beneath the layers of lies?
I’m so happy to bring you my review of Diane Chamberlain’s latest and incredible novel, Big Lies in a Small Town. It’s funny because this appeared on my NetGalley shelf a while ago and I had no recall of requesting it, wasn’t sure why it was there, etc – but I am so glad I received it and read it!
Written in dual POVs and time periods, this novel is about Morgan Christopher in 2018 and Anna Dale in 1940. I’ll try not to be repetitive concerning the blurb, but Morgan is in prison serving time for a crime that she actually did not commit when she is visited by two women claiming that they can get her released. One of the women is the daughter of the late Jesse Jameson Williams, Morgan’s favorite artist. Her requirement for release is that she must restore a mural for an upcoming gallery opening in Edenton, NC. Sounds great, except, although she is a trained artist, she has never done any restoration. But she agrees anyway, of course, in order to gain her freedom. Then there is Anna Dale. After recently losing her mother, Anna travels to Edenton from New Jersey after winning a competition with the Treasury Department to create a mural for the Edenton post office. Initially planning to only spend a few days there to gather ideas for the mural, Anna finds herself a temporary resident in Edenton while getting to know the area and the people. She also discovers that things are quite different in this small town regarding racial tension and segregation, as well as, people making up and living by their own rules.
First of all, I applaud the author for her amazing description of Edenton both in the past and present. Her commitment to getting this right and amount of research is clearly evident throughout the novel. This authenticity makes this incredible storyline even better. Everything from restaurants to amounts of time to walk from point a to point b seemed very carefully considered before being put into the novel.
Secondly, bravo to Chamberlain for creating two so different, yet incredibly strong female characters. Anna and Morgan are both artists, they are both trying to make it on their own, and they both are trying to understand Edenton and its residents. But because of the differing time periods, their lives are very different beyond that.
Anna is not only struggling with the loss of her mother and the pressure of creating the mural but dealing with daily gossip and judgment surrounding her decision to allow a young African American man to assist her with the mural. It’s not that she was naive to the prejudices in the South at that time, she just wasn’t quite prepared for the backlash of not agreeing with their prejudices.
Morgan is facing enormous pressure to complete a task that she does not know how to do. Furthermore, this task assigned by her favorite artist is included in numerous stipulations in his will regarding his daughter Lisa and her home. That pressure combined with meeting the demands of her parole and confronting past demons prove to be a daily battle for Morgan, although I loved how she maintained her positivity.
Big Lies in a Small Town ended up being an absolutely incredible surprise for me. Of course, I am familiar with Chamberlain, but this is my first time reading anything by this author. This novel is beautifully written, full of tension and emotion, and has numerous twists and turns – both good and bad. The secondary characters are just as well-developed as the main characters and truly complete this story. This was an absolute page-turner that I refused to set down until I read the last line and is a story I will not soon forget. I highly, highly recommend this one.
*Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing this review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.
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