cover image A Secret Word

A Secret Word

Jennifer Paddock. Touchstone Books, $16.95 (206pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-4707-8

Paddock's striking debut is an intricately balanced story of three girls from Fort Smith, Ark., linked for life by a high school tragedy. In 1986, tennis and country club pals Sarah and Chandler hitch a ride to lunch from the less privileged Leigh; they're pursued by footballer Trey, who crashes his car and dies. Flash forward to 1990: Chandler and Sarah have gone to college; Leigh stays behind to work at a dry cleaner's. But their paths continue to intersect, and Paddock follows her characters through 15 years as they peel apart and reunite, capturing each of the young women in separate first-person chapters. Chandler-introspective, loyal and passionate-moves to New York to go to law school, but loses her way after the death of her financially troubled father. Leigh is still in Fort Smith, her drunken, promiscuous mother a source of embarrassment. She goes on to work at the local grocery store and marries a local boy, though she's never quite content with the smallness of her life. Rich, stunning Sarah moves to New York in Chandler's wake to make it as an actress (though, as her acting coach tells her, she's a better tennis player than thespian). Supported by her father's money, she develops a mild cocaine habit and leans on Chandler for friendship and constancy. Paddock dances between characters and years, tracing her protagonists' tortured and happy relationships, their anguish and confusion and eventually the strength that comes to each. This is a subtle, surprising first novel, with unforgettable characters, a quiet sense of place and a nuanced exploration of the secrets, loves, despairs, friends and relatives that shape our lives. (Apr. 5)