Sharon's Book & Wine Club - April 2020
Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain
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?
Summary by GoodReads.
Wine Selections for this month include:
Orin Swift Abstract $33.99
Tangent Paragon Sauvignon Blanc $14.34
Buy the Book
For this month’s book club, I selected Big Lies in a Small Town, by Diane Chamberlain. After the seriousness of last month’s pick, I wanted a lighter story for April.
Why I chose this book? I was looking for a “gentle” read this month; a story that was easy to fall into and kept me engaged. I also thought it might be nice to choose a story with a female protagonist considering we’ve had a number of male protags in our line-up so far. And Big Lies in a Small Town fit nicely within my general preferences for reads: southern historical fiction with an underlying mystery to uncover/crime to resolve. Additionally, it is a current (January 2020) release.
What is the book about? Big Lies in a Small Town is a tale of mystery and murder in sleepy, small-town North Carolina. The story opens with a dead body found near a stream in March 1940. From there, Chamberlain introduces us to two aspiring artists in their early twenties separated by 80 years. In 2018, Morgan Christopher is serving a three year sentence North Carolina Correctional Facility for Women in Raleigh, North Carolina when she is mysteriously released early. In 1940 Anna Dale is living in Plainfield New Jersey when she is selected as the winning artist to paint a mural for the town post office in Edenton, North Carolina. Both are connected by the post-office mural that each have been tasked to complete. In alternate viewpoints and dual timelines, we hear both stories; the mystery of what happened to Anna is uncovered, and connections between the two are revealed.
What did I like about the book? This book is historical fiction and a mystery rolled into one. (I love both genres!) As an amateur artist, the narrative around creativity, artistic impression and technique intrigued me. Both Morgan and Anna are strong characters. Because Chamberlain narrates the story in dual timelines—Morgan in first-person, Anna in third-person-close—I was concerned that I would become more invested in one character over the other. In fact, I was slightly more drawn to Anna’s storyline than Morgan’s. I found Anna’s character admirable. She was independent, ambitious, and confident during a time period and in a place where strong women were frowned upon. I enjoyed her progressive thinking and her ability to make wise decisions, putting herself and her dreams first. Morgan was painfully aware of the consequences for her previous inability to self-regulate. Throughout the story, we experience her struggle to regain both her self-control and her self-confidence. I found some of her self-loathing taxing at times, and her romantic notions were more than a bit annoying. But Chamberlain forces us to experience Morgan’s growth with her. And it works. For me, Morgan’s unwavering determination to finish the mural and unwind its mysteries, is what weds me to her in the end.
What didn’t I like about the book? At first, the use of short chapters threw me but I ultimately fell into the pace of the book. A couple of times, the story seemed to drag a bit and I felt that had Chamberlain cut or combined some of those smaller chapters, the pacing would have benefited. But wanting to know why Anna painted the mural as she did, and why was Morgan was chosen to restore the mural, kept me turning pages until the final word.
Who should read it? Anyone who is looking for a gentle historical fiction and is intrigued unraveling mysterious secrets from the past should read this book. This book is perfect for readers who appreciate ambitious, strong women and who like a story with a hint of romance. It’s a great read for fans of Diane Chamberlain!
A tale of two artists, living 78 years apart in a small Southern town, and the third artist who links them.
The fates of two white painters in Edenton, North Carolina, intertwine with the legacy of a third, that of Jesse Jameson Williams, a prominent African American artist with Edenton roots. In 2018, the recently deceased Jesse has left a very unusual will. In life, Jesse paid his success forward by helping underdog artists. Morgan Christopher, the last, posthumous recipient of Jesse’s largesse, can’t imagine why he chose her, a complete stranger who is doing time for an alcohol-related crash that left another driver paralyzed. Released on an early parole engineered by Jesse’s daughter, Lisa, Morgan will receive $50,000 to restore a mural painted by one Anna Dale in 1940 in time for a gallery opening on Aug. 5, 2018. If Morgan misses this deadline, not only is her deal off, but Lisa will, due to a puzzling, thinly motivated condition of Jesse’s will, lose her childhood home. In an alternating narrative, Anna, winner of a U.S. Treasury Department competition, has been sent from her native New Jersey to paint a mural for the Edenton post office. Anna has zero familiarity with the South, particularly with Jim Crow. She recognizes Jesse’s exceptional talent and mentors him, to the ire of Edenton’s white establishment. Martin Drapple, a local portraitist rejected in the competition, is at first a good sport, when he’s sober, until, somewhat too suddenly, he’s neither. Issues of addiction and mental illness are foremost in both past and present. Anna’s late mother had manic episodes. Morgan’s estranged parents are unrepentant boozers. And Anna’s mural of civic pride is decidedly strange. One of the strengths here is the creditable depiction of the painter’s process, in Anna’s case, and the restorer’s art, in Morgan’s. Despite the fraught circumstances challenging all three painters, conflict is lacking. The 1940 racial tensions are unrealistically mild, and Jesse’s testamentary testiness is not mined for its full stakes-raising potential.
An engaging, well-researched, and sometimes thought-provoking art mystery.
Both Anna and Morgan are characters that are intriguing to read about. Morgan is a young adult who is struggling with many issues, including trying to discover who she is in 2018. In contrast, Anna is a confident young artist in 1940 dealing with a small town who is not ready for her feminism. As the story unfolds, these two perspectives give a gripping look at women’s lives in juxtaposing timelines.
Each of the timelines deal with issues that are relevant and important today. Topics such as racism, substance abuse, and mental illness are explored in the novel, and at times can be quite shocking. Also, the fact that the story spans almost 80 years is a real eye opener.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the story is the mysterious canvas that Morgan is restoring. The way art ties the whole book together, and creates a mystery surrounding Anna and her life creates a real page-turner. It becomes a connection that ties everything together.
Big Lies in a Small Town is a book that will satisfy many readers. It has a bit of everything, including an interesting twist at the end. This is the first Diane Chamberlain novel that I have read and I am excited to try more of her work. A perfect read for the start of a new year.
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.
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.
Book Club Discussion Form
Book Club Discussion Topics
The following book club questions will have spoilers so if you haven’t read the novel yet, read my review first.
The Story Plot
- What are the major plot points that commit the protagonist (and the reader)?
- What are the turning points that cause our heroine to act and/or change? Is it believable?
- How was the pacing/structure (does it keep you engaged and are the stakes constantly escalating)?
Character Arc / Hero’s Journey
- Morgan – what false-truth does she believe at the beginning of the story?
- What is it she wanted verses what is it that she needed?
- Is there an unsung hero?
- Did it work for you?
- Were all the “contracts” the author made with you fulfilled?
- What would you change if you could rewrite it?
- Let’s talk about the symbolism of the color red.
- Use one adjective to describe the writing itself.
- Can you give some examples?
- What did you love most about the book?
- What didn’t you like?
Out of five, how many stars?