Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen McManus

Have you read One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus? Well, you should. It’s her debut novel for young adults and it was the most popular read in my Honors English 9 class year when we read suspense novels in book clubs.

But I’m not here to talk about One of Us Is Lying; I’m here to talk about McManus’s sophomore novel, Two Can Keep a Secret. Since I gobbled up One of Us Is Lying, it was easy to throw Two Can Keep a Secret in my cart while on a shopping trip to Target this summer.

I read this novel around Winnebago’s Homecoming, which was perfect, because this book revolves around Homecoming.

The book revolves around Ellery and her twin brother Ezra. The pair move to the sleepy town of Echo Ridge, Vermont to live with their grandmother after their flighty actress mother checks into rehab for a pain-killer addiction back in California. Ellery is a true crime enthusiast, a passion driven by the suspicious disappearance of her mother’s — Sadie’s — twin sister, Sarah during their high school years.

Ellery: “I can feel my aunt’s absence in this town, even more than my mother’s.”

McManus 78-9

Upon arrival the twins and their grandmother witness the aftermath of a hit-and-run on the most popular, caring teacher at Echo Ridge High School, inciting the mysterious pall of the novel.

Malcom: “Welcome to life in a small town. You’re only as good as the best thing your family’s done. Or the worst.”

Ellery: “Or the worst thing that’s been done to them.”

McManus 86

Malcom Kelley’s return to Echo Ridge after a summer vacation with his mom coincides with the arrival of Ellery and Ezra. Malcom’s mom is remarried to Echo Ridge big-wig Peter Nilsson, and they now live with him and his teenage daughter, Katrin. Malcom’s parents divorced after his older brother, Declan, was suspected for murder of his girlfriend, Lacey. In fact, Declan’s subsequent move back to Echo Ridge at the beginning of the school year puts the rest of the town on edge.

Unfortunately for Malcom, Ellery catches him in two places where threatening messages referencing Lacey’s death appear in red spray paint across town.

Nevertheless, Ellery and Malcom bond over their unconventional family backgrounds:

Malcom: “we’re two sides of the same coin. Both of us are stuck in one of Echo Ridge’s unsolved mysteries, except her family lost a victim and mine has a suspect.”

McManus 86

Malcom: “We have screwed-up family histories. Morbid comes with the territory.”

McManus 220

Things come to a head when the girls nominated for Homecoming queen — Ellery, Katrin, and her friend Brooke — are threatened with more mysterious graffiti. When Brooke goes missing, Ellery cannot help herself: she applies all that she knows about true crime to help solve the case with Ezra, Malcom, and their friend Mia by her side.

“We’ve all lost our version of a princess, and none of us know why. I’m sick of being tangled up in Echo Ridge’s secrets, and of the questions that never end. I want answers. I want to help this little girl and her sister, and Melanie, and Nana. And my mother. I want to do something. For the missing girls, and the ones left behind.”

McManus 84

I think a lot of readers think this second book of McManus’s is a disappointment. A student told me that she thought it was “slow.” But, I think part of the problem is that the book — while similar in style and content to One of Us is Lying — has a very different pace. The pace is more like a slow burn of a mystery than the adrenaline-fueled One of Us is Lying.

I happened to like this about the book; it made the book last longer and gave me the opportunity to savor the characters. I felt like the pace mirrored the feel of Echo Ridge. I’m a sucker for elements of writing style that parallel the setting; I think it’s difficult to do and takes some talented writing to pull off. 

One of the features of Echo Ridge is a fight attraction called Fright Farm (formerly Murderland until it became the site of Lacey’s murder). Ellery contemplates the juxtaposition of the monster-themed carnival attractions against the real-life murder and disappearance of young women in Echo Ridge:

Ellery: “All of Fright Farm’s success is based on how much people love to be scared in a controlled environment. There’s something deeply, fundamentally satisfying about confronting a monster and escaping unscathed. Real monsters aren’t anything like that. They don’t go.”

McManus 181

The background of these characters is rich, which I think gives this book more depth than those in One of Us Is Lying. I think people like the latter so much because it revolves around the stereotypes reminiscent of those in John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985). That nostalgia is fun, but it’s been done before. The characters in Two Can Keep a Secret are fresh, deep, and resonant.

McManus is deft here at drawing attention to teen issues without making the story about these issues. She shows instead of tells what it’s like for a teen to watch a parent with a drug addiction, living in a whitewashed, small town as a minority, or identifying as gay and trying to fit in to a new, less-accepting place. She includes snapshots of what it’s like to live in a blended family; since approximately 16% of kids today live in a blended family (Meleen), the representation of what that’s like — without making the story about that — helps teens relate and engage.

Malcom: “Everything’s back to normal. I don’t know. Maybe it is, or maybe we’re finally figuring out that we haven’t been normal for years and it’s time to redefine the word.”

McManus 314

The ability to include representation like this into stories that revolve around engaging, suspenseful plots helps anyone who feels like an outlier feel connected to what they read.

Malcom: “Just like that, we’re all outsiders together.”

McManus 166

Another message McManus includes that I really appreciate is her condemnation of the sentimentalization our culture puts true-crime to. Between murder podcasts and Dateline episdoes, we gulp down stories of true-crime as entertainment; this has always made me feel uncomfortable. I love that McManus explores this dichotomy through the character of Ellery. As someone true-crime obsessed, Ellery often misapplies what she’s learned through her true-crime books and shows to her own experience.

Ellery: “It’s exhausting, thinking this way. Ezra is lucky he hasn’t read as many true-crime books as I have. I can’t shut them out.”

McManus 161

Ezra reminds her,

“This is exactly what we don’t need right now, El. Wild theories that distract people from what’s really going on.”

McManus 161

It reminds me of Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, who takes the Gothic novels she reads too seriously and ends up hurting the feelings of the man she loves. Ellery’s obsession likewise causes a rupture in her relationship with Malcom and even her own family. She learns to trust him when her dependence on true-crime stories backfires:

Ellery: “In that moment, I choose to believe he’s not a Kelly boy with a temper, or someone with opportunity and motive, or the quiet kind you’d never suspect. I choose to believe he’s the person he’s always shown himself to be. I choose to trust him.”

McManus 163

Malcolm himself similarly struggles with the dangers of speculation when he finds that he can’t help but suspect his own brother in the disappearances of Lacey and Brooke:

Malcom: “Ellery looks thoughtful. Like she can see into the secret corner of my brain that I try not to visit often, because it’s where my questions about what really happened between Declan and Lacey live. That corner makes me equal parts horrified and ashamed, because every once in a while, it imagines my brother losing control of his hair-trigger temper at exactly the wrong moment.”

McManus 132

Go in to Two Can Keep a Secret with an open mind; don’t compare it to McManus’s debut novel. Instead, let it stand as itself and enjoy! 

At the very least, read to the end . . . because it’s chilling

Trigger Warnings: abuse (emotional, child, toxic relationships); bullying (blackmail); death (murder); divorce; kidnapping; loss of a loved one; manipulation; mind control; narcissistic personality disorder; trauma; violence

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