Big Lies in a Small Town: A Novel
“Overall, this is a reasonably good story that could have been much stronger. . . . The ending ties everything together but feels too pat and maybe a little too cute. The characters have potential, but Chamberlain doesn’t take the time and energy she could have to make them more vivid.”
In 1940, 22-year-old New Jersey native Anna Dale enters a federal competition to put a mural in a post office of each of the 48 states. Anna’s mother committed suicide only a few months before, and Anna is struggling to cope with her grief.
The Feds like her sketch, but mandate her to do the mural for Edenton, South Carolina, a town she has never heard of, much less seen. She will have to study the town and its history before she can plan a new drawing. This premise feels contrived, and Chamberlain never makes it more plausible, so the book starts off with a weak foundation.
In 2018, Morgan Christopher has spent the last year in prison after her second DUI caused an accident that paralyzed a young woman. Before that, she finished three years of art school, where she worked hard but lacked talent. She tells us that her boyfriend Trey, as drunk as she was, was really driving, but she foolishly took the blame to protect his scholarship to law school.
Lisa Williams, daughter of famous African American artist Jesse Jameson Williams, tells Morgan she can be released if she will agree to restore an old mural in time for the opening of the late artist’s new gallery. If she completes the task, she will be free with time served and will receive $50,000. Williams championed many struggling art students before his death, but nobody knows how he heard about Morgan.
Morgan has never studied restoration and was only an average student, but the offer is too good to pass up. She seems a bad choice for the task, too, and Chamberlain finally reveals the reason at the end of the story. Unfortunately, she does little to set it up, so it feels contrived, too.
Morgan finds herself in Edenton, South Carolina with two months to restore a badly-damaged 6’ x 12’ mural she has never seen before. Anna Dale disappeared before completing the job 78 years earlier, and nobody knows what happened to her.
Chamberlain alternates scenes in Morgan’s point of view with Anna’s story from 1940. The scenes are usually only a few pages long, and Anna’s scenes sag with backstory and exposition, so the book’s pace and rhythm never pick up.
She slowly wins over the strait-laced southern town (Her landlady is scandalized that she wears slacks rather than a skirt to climb ladders and paint the mural) and has three local high school art students helping her, one being the young Jesse Williams, who has enormous talent, but little training and is failing most of his school subjects. Anna recognizes his potential and tries to help him, but Jesse is black, and people warn her not to be alone in the workspace with him in 1940.
Martin Drapple, a local portrait artist everyone expected to win the competition, confronts Anna because he and his wife are both bitter about the “unfair” judging. Drapple also appears to be a mean drunk and an abusive husband.
In the present sections of the story, Morgan is attracted to Oliver, head of the gallery project, and struggles to learn how to restore the striking but disturbing mural and learn more about the vanished artist. Lisa constantly pressures her because they both know the deadline for her completion will be nearly impossible. Chamberlain finally explains that at the end of the book, too.
Morgan gradually learns her trade and fights off both her attraction to Oliver and pressure from her parole officer, who forces her to attend AA meetings and wear an alcohol monitor. She becomes fascinated by the mural and what little they can find about Anna Dale, who clearly was very talented but may have “gone crazy.”
Anna eventually gets caught between her fascination with the town’s history, the town’s racism over her encouraging Jesse, and the anger of Drapple and his wife. When it all comes to a violent climax, she is forced to lie to the police and take refuge in a black household before she can finally disappear. . . forever. Behind her, she leaves a mural that includes disturbing and bizarre images: a motorcycle emerging from a group of old women, a skull in a window, a man’s reflection in a mirror that should hold a woman’s face.
Morgan and Oliver struggle to understand the strange images, but get nowhere until Lisa’s aunt, Jesse’s sister, reveals some of Anna’s secret. The woman is over 90 and battling dementia, so Morgan has trouble putting her story together. Then after her death, someone finds Anna’s journal among her possessions.
That journal, the longest single section of the book, gives Morgan an epistolary explanation of the truth. She hasn’t done any worthwhile investigating, and the crucial clue simply falls into her lap. Oliver has a friend who works for the state, who tracks down the other missing person in Morgan’s life, too. It’s too convenient to be satisfying.
Near the end of the book, Chamberlain glosses over two potentially dramatic and important scenes with either a summary or nothing at all. Both would be spoilers to discuss here, but their omission was a letdown.
The story’s ending ties everything together, but the characters did little to make it happen. The characters have potential, but Chamberlain doesn’t take the time and energy she could have to make them more vivid. Anna especially suffers from long passages of turgid narration and exposition that advance the story very little.
Overall, this is a reasonably good story that could have been much stronger.