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Mitali Perkins,
Secret Keeper
Delacorte Press, 2009.

Ages 12+

Teenage dreams far outstrip family expectations in Secret Keeper, an engrossing new YA novel set in Calcutta in the mid-1970’s by award-winning author Mitali Perkins (Rickshaw Girl). Seventeen-year-old tomboy Asha and her beloved 18-year-old sister, Reet, are at their father’s brother’s house with their mother while their unemployed engineer father looks for work in New York. Asha’s plans for a career in psychology are on hold. In New York, she dreams, she’d have athletic and professional opportunities impossible for respectable girls in India.

Raj, their cousin, could be a professional cricket player, but as the breadwinner on whom the women in the household - his mother, grandmother, two younger sisters, and now his aunt and two cousins as well - may ultimately depend, he’s being pressured toward a higher-paying career. Even the wealthy, reclusive boy next door, Jay, aspires to an alternative life as a painter.

As months drag on, her father still jobless, Asha overcomes Raj’s standoffishness, dotes on and tutors his sisters, and, with Reet, schemes to rouse their mother from depression exacerbated by household tensions. To confide secret feelings in her lockable diary, Asha steals away to the rooftop, where she and neighbor Jay discover their equally secret attraction.

Then Perkins’ plot deepens in wonderful ways. Asha’s father’s accidental death intensifies the family’s financial difficulties, and Reet, the beautiful, more compliant elder daughter, must marry soon, and without a large dowry. Asha rescues her from one unsuitable suitor, Raj nixes another, and then Asha makes a heartwrenching, secret decision that solves many problems and creates others. Fortunately, Reet also rises courageously to the occasion, as do Jay and Raj. None of them gets exactly what they desire, but they all make honorable, unselfish choices that give everyone a chance at happiness.

Secret Keeper offers a timely message for teenage readers, many with far more options than Asha: there are no easy answers, but if you have integrity, everything is bearable, including tough secrets. It's a complex, morally challenging story that could well be adapted for adult audiences. The novel includes a biographical author’s note, an example of the folk stories Asha tells her young cousins, and a glossary of Indian words used in the text. Mitali Perkins’ new book is a refreshing and respectful portrait of teenagers, their aspirations and their tremendous capacity for integrity.

Charlotte Richardson
February, 2009




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