Review: BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN by Diane Chamberlain
Also by this author: The Dream Daughter
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 14, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN review
Diane Chamberlain’s latest novel, Big Lies in a Small Town, follows two protagonists, Morgan Christopher and Anna Dale. When we meet Morgan, she is serving a three-year prison sentence. Prior to her arrest, Morgan was in school pursuing her dream of a career in art. That dream is on indefinite hold until one day when Lisa Williams, the daughter of Jesse Jameson, one of Morgan’s favorite artists, visits her in prison and presents her with an offer she can’t refuse. If, per Jameson’s request, as expressed in his will, Morgan is willing to help Lisa with a major art restoration project, Morgan will immediately be released from prison. It sounds too good to be true, of course. Morgan knows nothing about art restoration and can’t imagine how she ended up named in Jesse Jameson’s will, but she’s not about to pass up on an offer to get her life back and so she accepts.
The art restoration project, which is a post office mural from a tiny town in North Carolina in 1940, is where the second protagonist, Anna Dale, comes into play. When Morgan begins work on the mural project and starts to remove the layers of dirt and grime that mire the mural’s surface, she makes a shocking discovery. What at first looks like a quaint portrait of small-town southern life soon reveals itself to be something much more disturbing. Hidden throughout the mural are axes, knives, blood, and even skulls. Morgan can’t imagine this was the artist’s original intention for the mural and becomes obsessed with trying to figure out what happened to make the artist go down such a dark path. The artist is Anna Dale.
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One of my favorite things about this novel is Chamberlain’s use of the dual timeline. In one timeline, we follow Anna from the time she takes the job to paint the mural and moves to North Carolina to complete her task, all the way through to what caused her to insert those violent images into her art. At the same time, we follow Morgan as she both restores the mural and tries to find out whatever she can about what happened to Anna. I loved how the two timelines parallel one another, revealing secret after secret and lie after lie, until they ultimately merge in the most heart-wrenching way.
I also loved Chamberlain’s portrayal of both of these characters. Both Anna and Morgan are underdogs in their respective timelines and I just adored both of them. They’re strong yet vulnerable, smart and resourceful, and they’re also both just so complex. Morgan is battling some inner demons related to her imprisonment, and as we can see from the mural, Anna had some demons of her own that haunted her. The more I learned about Morgan, the more I was cheering her on every step of the way, and the more I learned about Anna, the more invested I became in learning what happened since that mural looks like it was painted by someone with a very disturbed mind.
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Filled with gorgeous prose, a unique, multi-layered and compelling plot, and unforgettable characters, Big Lies in a Small Town, completely blew me away. I loved every page of it, so much so that it’s my first 5-star review of 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?