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Friday, March 19, 2010

Dirty Little Secrets: It's Heartbreaking. It's Moving. It's Unforgettable.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Every family has a secret it hides from the world. The Tompkins' is just dirtier than most. Lucy's spent her life hiding it, protecting herself from certain shame and humiliation. She's done everything she can to keep people away, never letting anyone come closer to her house than the porch. No one can know what's inside. Not friends, not family, not neighbors, not repairmen, not delivery people. No one. Which becomes a major problem when Lucy finds her mother dead in the hallway. The thought of reporters covering the story, filming the heaps of junk that fill every corner of her house, announcing the lurid truth - that Joanna Tompkins suffocated under a pile of her own filth - gives Lucy the shakes. She's finally got a best friend, even a potential boyfriend, both of which she knows she'll lose if her filthy secret gets out.

Lucy's story provides the backbone for C.J. Omololu's stunning first novel, Dirty Little Secrets. It's a heartbreaking story dedicated to "every child who grew up with a shameful secret" (Acknowledgments, Page 211). Closets skeleton free? No matter, you will still feel for brave, believable Lucy.

As the 16-year-old digs through the rubble of her mother's life, grief, anger and a strange sense of freedom swirl inside her. She can vaguely remember a time when Joanna Tompkins cared more about her children than about her precious stuff. But that time is long past. Any warm memories have long been erased by her mother's stacks of junk, garbage she obviously treasured over Lucy's happiness. Her compulsive hoarding stole Lucy's childhood, guaranteeing she would never do anything as normal as invite girls over for a PJ party, gossip with her best friend in her bedroom, or, God forbid, eat a meal at an actual dining room table. Instead, she's lied, evaded, and lived in mortal fear of anyone discovering her dirty secret.

Lucy's so determined to hate her mother that she's surprised by the little things she unearths - a secret scrapbook, a handmade teddy bear, blue ribbons. Is it possible she never knew her mother at all? As Lucy literally shovels the past out of her life, she finds a sort of healing - even as she struggles to hide her biggest secret of all.

I've read plenty of books about family secrets, but never one that moved me as much as Dirty Little Secrets. My heart hurt for Lucy. Omololu paints such a clear picture of the filth, shame and despair associated with compulsive hoarding that you'd think she was speaking from personal experience. She's not. Still, the story comes off as achingly real. Although Dirty Little Secrets ends on a semi-hopeful note, it's never warm and fuzzy. It's an honest, sometimes brutal, portrait of what it means to be a child burdened with a terrible secret. It's heartbreaking. It's moving. It's completely unforgettable. In three words: Highly, highly recommended.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of What's Eating Gilbert Grape? by Peter Hedges)

Grade: A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some language, sexual innuendo and underrage drinking/partying

To the FTC, with love: I purchased this book from Amazon using the millions of dollars I make from my lucrative book reviewing career.

(Note: If your life has been impacted by compulsive hoarding, check out Children of Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive)


  1. This sounds wonderful, and it's a topic I haven't seen tackled in literature before. I have had my eye on this book for a while, but you've inspired me to add it to my TBR list. :-)

  2. I'd like to add this one to my list to read also! Sounds interesting :)

    Good review!!

  3. Hi Susan, I followed you over from Jennifer's blog hop. I LOVE your blog! It's beautiful!!

    Anyway, this is a great review. I was sort of on the edge about whether I wanted to read this or not, but I may have to check it out!

    I'm a new follower!

  4. I love love love Whats Eating Gilbert Grape! Couple that with your awesome review, and now I totally need to go buy this book!

  5. Stephanie - Me neither. That's part of what made it such an interesting read for me.

    Nicola & Jeannie - I'd love to hear your opinions of this book. I think it's a really moving read.

    Jenny - Thanks :) Isn't the blog hop fun? I'm really enjoying it.

    Jenna - I have to be honest here - I haven't actually read GILBERT GRAPE, I've just seen the movie (shame on me, I know) and it's been a long time at that. The stories, however, seem similar. If I'm wrong, somebody let me know, okay?


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