Nothing gets my heart in my throat like a big secret in a book. As soon as you’ve got one character trying to keep something from all the rest of them, I’m hooked. If they bring someone else in on the secret, forget about it! (After all, as the saying goes, two can keep a secret if…) Even though I know that the big secrets are (almost) always revealed by the book’s climax, my eyes are still wide open and I’m wondering how the heck they’ll get away with it. Here’s a list of books about big secrets that will keep you turning pages past your bedtime!
Flowers In The Attic by VC Andrews
As far as books about big secrets go, they don’t come much bigger than this. In Flowers In The Attic, the matriarch of the Dollanganger family is keeping a few big secrets, not the least of which is the four children hiding in the attic. After the death of their father, she’s forced to return to her own family home, and try to mend fences with her estranged family. The thing is, she knows that her father won’t approve of her children. The logical solution (ahem!) is to hide them in the attic of the house for a day or two… or a month or two… or a year or two? That definitely couldn’t have any disastrous consequences, right? Read my full review of Flowers In The Attic here.
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
The title says it all, really: in The Husband’s Secret, the main character’s husband has a secret. And it’s a BIG one. Her first clue is a sealed letter she finds, with a mysterious note on the envelope: “For my wife, only to be opened in the event of my death”. I don’t know about you, but there is no way I could resist the temptation to open that tantalising Pandora’s Box. Lucky, for fans of thriller books about big secrets, Moriarty’s protagonist can’t resist either. The contents of the envelope are about to turn her whole world upside-down. Read my full review of The Husband’s Secret here.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
In Little Fires Everywhere, it feels like everyone’s keeping big secrets. The “placid, progressive suburb” of Shaker Heights, Ohio, looks perfect from the outside. Elena Richardson, the matriarch of a quintessential nuclear family, magnanimously rents out her investment property to struggling artist and single mother, Mia. Little does Elena realise that the arrival of Mia and her daughter, Pearl, is about to blow both families’ secrets wide open. Why are Mia and Pearl always on the move? How do the Richardson children really feel about their picture-perfect lives? All will be revealed, naturally! Read my full review of Little Fires Everywhere here.
Adèle by Leïla Slimani
On the face of it, the big secret at the heart of Adèle sounds delicious and fun. Adèle is a closet sex addict. Even though she’s “happily married”, she spends her nights – and, let’s be honest, some of her days – trawling the Parisian arrondissements looking for lovers. It only takes a few pages to realise, though, that Adèle’s secret is far from a fun one. Her pursuit of intimacy is destructive, threatening to destroy her otherwise-perfect life at every turn. This is one of the most twisted books about big secrets that don’t involve murder or bloodshed, which only makes it far more sinister. Read my full review of Adèle here.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
The seemingly-perfect Sinclair family are keeping one hell of a secret in We Were Liars. They have all the trappings of considerable wealth (summer holidays on a private island, anyone?), but ironically none of them actually earn enough to support themselves. The wealth, and the power it supposedly affords them, is an illusion. The teen generation sees through it all, and they’re angling to lead the revolution… until one of them, Candace, is found seriously injured and floating in the ocean. She has no memory of what happened to her to have her end up that way, and no one will tell her. The hint is in the book’s title… Read my full review of We Were Liars here.
The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald
It’s hard to imagine that the family of a missing child could keep any secrets. Between the police interrogating their every move and motive, and the media combing over every hint and clue as to the child’s whereabouts, no stone remains unturned. But Alistair and Joanna have managed it, by the skin of their teeth. They’re hiding a whopper of a secret in The Cry, about what happened to their missing nine-week-old son Noah. Books about big secrets naturally attract readers who love a good moral dilemma and ethical grey-areas – if that sounds like you, Fitzgerald’s psychological thriller is a must-read. Read my full review of The Cry here.
Remember Me by Charity Norman
There’s an obvious way to ratchet up the tension in books about big secrets: put them in the hands of someone who can’t be relied upon not to spill the beans. In Remember Me, the secret is at risk for the most heart-wrenching reason. Emily Kirkland’s father has dementia, and it’s rapidly progressing. As the disease captures his mind, he’s thrown back into the past, and Emily worries that he might reveal something she doesn’t want to know. Something about Leah Patara, the young woman from her town who vanished without a trace, decades ago. Could he have had something to do with the disappearance that rocked a small New Zealand town? Read my full review of Remember Me here.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The big secret at the heart of Middlesex is the very definition of ‘fuck around and find out’. Only, the Stephanides don’t ‘fuck around’ so much as ‘fuck within their own family tree’. Generations of interbreeding have given rise to Cal’s genetic 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, a congenital disorder that affects sexual development. So, the family secret becomes Cal’s secret as they navigate adolescence and adulthood as an intersex person. But don’t be fooled: this is much more than a “gender novel”. It’s a big book, in length, depth, and breadth, and yet it’s compelling and thoroughly readable. Read my full review of Middlesex here.
The Turn Of The Key by Ruth Ware
A new governess alone in a huge creepy “smart”-house with two weird kids? A cantankerous housekeeper and mysterious bumps in the night? As if books about big secrets weren’t chilling enough, Ruth Ware levels up with The Turn Of The Key. Writing to her lawyer from prison, Rowan does her best to explain the turn of events that led to one child dead, another traumatised, and herself awaiting trial for murder – but in her cell, she’s yet to uncover the biggest secret of all. Hats off to Ware for (literally!) keeping us guessing until the very last page! Read my full review of The Turn Of The Key here.
Notes On A Scandal by Zoë Heller
In Notes On A Scandal, narrator Barbara Covett is in on the secret. She’s worked hard to ingratiate herself with her new BFF Sheba, the delightfully young and beautiful new pottery teacher at her comprehensive school, and she’s sure her diligence and patience will be rewarded. Sheba’s affair with an underage student is shocking, yes, but it’s also just the thing to bind the two friends together forever. Sheba’s about to discover that she’s not the only one keeping her personal proclivities under wraps… Read my full review of Notes On A Scandal here.
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
In books about big secrets, often the characters fool themselves into thinking that what they’re keeping hidden can’t hurt anyone. Take The Plot, for instance: would anyone really mind that Jacob Finch Bonner stole the plot to his best-selling widely-acclaimed novel from a dead creative writing student? Evan Parker’s idea was brilliant, after all, and Jake had braced himself for the kid’s success (as his own career went down the tubes). Why should Evan’s death mean that his brilliant idea has to die with him? Only it turns out, someone knows what Jake has done, they do mind and they’re not planning on keeping quiet. Read my full review of The Plot here.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Every serious booklover will recognise Atonement as one of the most iconic books about big secrets. Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel explores the devastating ramifications of one mistake, one childish lie, across the course of three adult lives. Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old girl, kicks up a big stink when she sees her sister Celia in a (ahem) passionate embrace with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie. Briony’s imagination runs away with her, painting Robbie as a sexual predator, and the stain of her accusation stays with him for life. As an adult, Briony knows that maybe she didn’t see exactly what she thought she saw, and she wrestles with whether to come forward, whether to reveal that she’s been keeping a secret that has ruined a man’s life. Read my full review of Atonement here.
Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
For fans of books about big secrets, Instructions For A Heatwave is a buy-one-get-one-free deal. Or, really, buy-one-get-a-whole-bunch-free, because everyone in the Riordan family is hiding something. Each of the Riordan siblings has their own secrets and foibles that the others know little, or nothing, about (and the matriarch, Gretta, is hiding a few things under her hat, too). There’s a failing marriage, conflicted feelings about motherhood, debilitating dyslexia, and a missing husband. Of course, it’s all going to come out into the open, and bring with it the biggest secret of all. Read my full review of Instructions For A Heatwave here.
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Okay, so many of these books about big secrets are scary thrillers – what about fun, sexy secrets? That’s Red, White & Royal Blue: a secret enemies-to-lovers romance between America’s First Son and the Prince of Wales. Keeping a secret (especially one as delicious and exciting as a love affair) isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, but what about when you’re two of the most recognisable and scrutinised young men in the world? That’s what faces Alex and Henry, two young adults trying to figure out who they are and what they are to each other, with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Conventions of the genre dictate that they must get their Happy Ever After, but it’s hard to see how. Read my full review of Red, White & Royal Blue here.
Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson
Madison needs help. Her twin stepkids are about to move in with her new family, under the roof of her buttoned-up politician husband. The twins are lovely, but – hold on to your hat – they have the terrifying tendency to spontaneously combust when they get excited. Seriously: the kids catch fire! Madison reaches out to her school friend, Lillian, and begs her to be their live-in caretaker, keeping them out of sight (and, y’know, not on fire). Nothing To See Here is a ridiculous, hilarious, glorious story about fierce protective love and figuring out which secrets need to be kept.
July 17, 2022 at 4:00 AM
Some fabulous choices here. Atonement is my favourite McEwan novel, I wish he still wrote like that.
July 20, 2022 at 12:41 PM
I love a great secret and the ultimate reveal. I haven’t read any of the books on your list. It looks like I have some great reading ahead of me.
August 15, 2022 at 12:03 PM
Oooooh yes! Please do tell me what you think when you’d get to them, we can gossip about the secrets 😉