BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN
Intergenerational narratives have always appealed to me, so I thoroughly enjoyed Diane Chamberlain’s novel, Big Lies in a Small Town. Eighty years apart, two aspiring young artists arrive in that small town of big lies, Edenton, North Carolina. In 1939 Anna Dale won a prestigious Fine Arts award—one of only forty-eight—to design, paint, and install an 8’ x 12’ mural in the Edenton post office. When she applied for the award, she hoped to be given the one available for her hometown in New Jersey. Instead, she must travel to distant North Carolina, familiarize herself with its local mores and culture, and quickly produce an acceptable artistic achievement. Alternating chapters tell the story of her attempt to accomplish that difficult task.
Morgan Christopher, another woman just barely twenty, narrates the other Big Lies in a Small Town chapters, telling a story that quite parallels Anna’s. Morgan went to Edenton in 2018. Her job? To restore that mural created by Anna but never installed in the post office. Instead, the wrapped canvas has been stored in the home of a well-known and highly-accomplished local artist of international repute. When he died, he left a considerable amount of money for the design and implementation of a local art museum featuring his work and that of fellow artists he admired. His will stipulated, too, that the heretofore unseen mural must be installed at the entry to the art museum and that Morgan Christopher (who has attended art school without graduating and who has no preservation training) must be hired to do the restoration.
Why Morgan Christopher? Big Lies in a Small Town finally answers that conundrum, just as it ultimately solves the mystery of why the mural was finished but never installed at the post office. The two puzzles unfold in tantalizing fashion, with many echoes between the lives of Anna and Morgan. Both are quite young and inexperienced. The artistic abilities of both are constantly questioned by long-time Edenton residents, so each must defend herself against small-town politics and prejudices. Both Anna and Morgan also are shadowed by tragedy. In Anna’s case, her mother died just before Anna won the award. Anna feels alone in Edenton and misses her mother, mightily. Morgan’s trauma is even more intense, for she was involved in a DUI accident that hurt another young woman badly. Morgan, in fact, is paroled from her subsequent prison sentence only because the unusual bequest from Jesse Williams offers respectable employment.
There is much to like about this intergenerational novel with no obvious connections to span the eighty years. Most important, both Anna and Morgan are interesting people—observant, eager to connect with the Edenton residents, absolutely determined to succeed. Those residents are well-drawn, too, and bring with them a distinct flavor of a Southern, small town environment. How that environment changes yet stays the same between 1940 and 2018 is part of Big Lies in a Small Town’s intrigue as well. Another Chamberlain gift is her talent for communicating the artistry necessary for Anna and Morgan’s projects. The reader not only learns details and implementation of mural design but also gains an in-depth understanding of oil painting restoration and preservation. In her notes at the end of the book, Chamberlain admits she had to learn much of this professional information from scratch, so she must be commended for mastering the material and for communicating complicated artistic steps so clearly.
In sum, Diane Chamberlain has written a most enjoyable novel that readers can appreciate. Big Lies in a Small Town builds slowly and then accelerates quickly, producing a tension that readers will enjoy. Appealing, too, is the novel’s intergenerational originality. No extended family dramas and no neurotic relationships. Rather, an intriguing plotting of parallel lives and aspirations. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Diane Chamberlain: The Silent Sister; Necessary Lies; The Dream Daughter; The Stolen Marriage; The Midwife’s Confession; The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes; Kiss River; Pretending to Dance; Keeper of the Light; Before the Storm; The Good Father; The Lies We Told; The Courage Tree; Breaking the Silence; Her Mother’s Shadow; The Escape Artist; Secrets She Left Behind; Private Relations; The Shadow Wife; Brass Ring; The First Lie; The Dance Begins; Fire and Rain; Lovers and Strangers; Reflection; Secret Lies; The Forgotten Son.
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