By Ekta R. Garg
January 15, 2020
Genre: Women’s fiction
Release date: January 14, 2020
Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars
Two women separated by decades but connected by their love for art deal with a dark secret. When one sets out to discover what happened to the other, both of their lives will change. Author Diane Chamberlain will keep readers riveted until the end with her main characters in her incredible novel Big Lies in a Small Town.
It’s 1939, and New Jersey native Anna Dale has just lost her mother. Anna watched her mother struggle with wildly changing moods; sometimes she’d burst through the days with enough energy for ten women. Then she’d sink so low that she’d have trouble getting out of bed. Anna lived for those animated periods in her mother’s life. Her mother’s passion for photography encouraged her own artwork. Now, though, Anna is all alone in the world.
When she gets word of winning a national art contest, Anna is both pleased and puzzled. She’d entered the contest hoping to win the opportunity to paint a mural for her hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey. The judges inform her that while another artist will paint the Plainfield mural, Anna has been chosen to paint the mural for the post office of Edenton, North Carolina.
Anna knows nothing about North Carolina; she’s never even traveled that far south. She can’t turn down the opportunity of the prize money, though, so she packs her bags for Edenton where she steps right into the duality of southern hospitality. As she researches the town and gets to know its residents, Anna realizes the task of painting a mural to represent Edenton may be bigger than she could manage on her own. The danger comes in knowing who to ask for help.
In early June of 2018, former art student Morgan Christopher is serving a three-year sentence in the North Carolina Women’s Correctional Facility for a crime she didn’t commit—except no one believes her because she confessed to it. After her first year in prison, Morgan dreads waking up in her cell every day. She’d do anything, she knows, to get out of jail for good.
Her wish is fulfilled when the daughter of a famous artist comes to see her. Morgan has admired the works of Jesse Williams for years and is beside herself when Williams’ daughter, Lisa, tells her there’s a way for her to get out on parole. Shortly before his death, Williams updated his will to stipulate the opening of a new art gallery in Edenton. The gallery needs to open on August 5 and will house Williams’ own work as well as the work of other prominent artists and promising students.
Williams stated in his will that Morgan was to be hired to restore the mural painted by Anna Dale. The mural, Lisa tells Morgan, has been rolled up and lying in a corner of her house for decades. No matter what state it’s in, it must be fully restored and installed in time for the gallery’s opening in August. In exchange for the restoration, Morgan will get out on parole and receive $50,000. If the restoration isn’t completed in time, Lisa will lose her house.
Despite her complete ignorance in art restoration, Morgan jumps at the chance. She starts with the mural and soon gets involved in a mystery: although it was completed, it was never hung in Edenton’s post office. As Morgan uncovers one square foot of the canvas at a time, she discovers the secrets Anna and the town of Edenton fought to keep.
Author Diane Chamberlain weaves an easy tale to follow. By switching chapters between Anna and Morgan, she doesn’t keep readers waiting too long on the stories of either women. Anna’s character arc follows familiar territory of race relations in small southern towns in the 1940s while also offering surprises. Morgan’s chapters, in first person, bring to readers her confusion that she restore the mural as well as her determination to do anything to stay out of prison.
Both women fight for themselves in their circumstances but also learn to fight for others. The connections between them might seem obvious, but Chamberlain’s meticulous plotting helps the story unfold in such a natural, organic way that readers will find themselves worrying about Anna and Morgan as they try to guess what will happen next.
Fans of fiction set in small towns will thoroughly enjoy this one. I recommend readers Binge Big Lies in a Small Town.