Speak Softly, She Can Hear

Sixteen-year-old Carole is a recent transfer to Spence, an exclusive prep school in New York City. Intelligent, kind-hearted, and witty, but overweight and socially awkward, Carole has only one real friend, the thin, brassy, emotionally troubled Naomi. With the sexual revolution of the 1960s swinging into high gear, Naomi persuades Carole that the time has come to “go all the way.” The man Naomi chooses to initiate them is Eddie, a handsome ne’er-do-well in his twenties whose proudest achievement is having been kicked out of several of the east coast’s most prominent prep schools. Carole and Naomi tell their parents that they are going on a ski trip, but actually plan to spend their winter break with Eddie in a motel room in Vermont.

Nothing goes as planned from the very start. Expecting to be alone with Eddie, Carole is shocked when they are joined by a sexually adventurous stranger. With Carole’s judgment and perceptions clouded by alcohol, she reluctantly engages in a ménage à trois, at the end of which a woman lies dead. Eddie orders the stunned Carole to help him and Naomi bury the woman in the snowy woods behind the motel. Alternately manipulative and bullying, he also convinces the naïve schoolgirl that she alone is responsible for the woman’s death.

Returning home, Carole constructs an elaborate web of deceit to cover up her involvement in the crime, flirts with suicide and, after some convincing from Naomi, who herself has made an art of slippery half-truths, comes to believe that lies are what set you free. One of her few comforts is her unlikely friendship with Rachel, a pregnant girl living at a nearby home for unwed mothers. Come fall, Carole enters Vassar as planned, but is unable to cope emotionally or academically. Shedding her true identity, she flees, at first to a tiny New York apartment, and then to Rachel’s new home in San Francisco at the height of the hippie and drug culture. But Carole’s past haunts her there, too, and soon she moves to rural Vermont, where she attempts once again to rebuild her life.

By 1975, ten years after the night that changed her destiny, she is the successful owner of a small bar and restaurant, with a good-looking and emotionally generous boyfriend, Will. Now thin and almost unrecognizable to former acquaintances, she has been out of touch with her family for almost a decade. Although beautiful and outwardly confident, Carole is tormented by the secret she shares with Eddie and Naomi. Her whole life is still about hiding and running and close calls.

The unexpected reappearance of Naomi and Eddie threatens to explode Carole’s carefully constructed world of illusion. Now a couple, they move to Carole’s town just as details of the long-ago death start to re-emerge. Driven to find out the truth at last, Carole begins her own investigation of the crime. A frigid, nighttime cross-country ski trip raises tensions to an almost unbearable level, as Rachel begins to piece the story together and Will starts to question Carole’s integrity. In the novel’s gripping climax, Carole travels alone to Naomi and Eddie’s farmhouse, where a harrowing confrontation in the snow and ice, a desperate rescue attempt, and sudden death finally lead to the truth and release Carole from her mental and emotional prison.

Equal parts psychological thriller and coming-of-age novel, this cautionary tale reveals how a life can be changed forever by a single deadly mistake. A skillfully crafted murder mystery, it vividly evokes the texture of a colorful and tumultuous era in recent American history. It is above all a compelling portrait of a young woman who must overcome a cruel turn of fate to find within herself the truth that there can be no love when people are divided by a secret.

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