Tell Me Everything, by Cambria Brockman, is a riveting novel that can fairly be compared to Donna Tartt’s highly esteemed The Secret History.
The protagonist of Tell Me Everything, Malin, goes to college in New England. It’s not quite Ivy League, but it’s elite and attracts a certain kind of accomplished of student, like the wealthy type who just fell short of getting into Harvard, Brown, or Penn State. There’s Ruby, a British theater major who is the life of the party but who is also deeply insecure. Golden boy John is handsome and good at everything, but he has issues since his dad went to jail for financial crimes. John’s cousin Max is a quiet, pre-med student who would rather study photography. Khalid is a prince from Abu Dhabi, and he is actually the least mysterious of the six friends. Finally, there’s Gemma, a stunningly beautiful art-history major and soccer star, whom both John and Max are in love with, and who Malin feels compelled to protect. Part of the reason this novel works so well is that each character is skillfully drawn and believable, and the way they fit together seems real, especially in the context of college friendships. That’s only one quality this book shares with Tartt’s The Secret History.
Nearly thirty years ago, The Secret History blew my mind and it will always be in my top five list of favorite novels ever. It’s the perfect combination of intrigue and character study, plus, you know right away a murder is committed and then you find out who and why and what the fallout is. All this adds to the moody New England college setting, and the fascinating allusions and parallels to ancient Greek studies completes the package. Lots of novels have tried to be like The Secret History since it first came out, but few them are. I’ll admit that whenever a novel is compared to it, and a lot of novels are, I want to read that novel. That’s what drew me to Tell Me Everything, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the comparison is apt.
More importantly though, Tell Me Everything is clever and original in its own right. While there are a lot of favorable similarities to The Secret History, it is not simply a weaker version of the story. The mystery unfolds slowly, with lots of shocking revelations and a stunning twist at the end. Yet, the twist isn’t a twist, because once you find out it seems so obvious, but that’s only because the author set it up so well.
The premise seems simple at first. The six main characters form a tight circle of friends and share a house. The story starts on “Senior Day” in the winter before they are to graduate. On Senior Day, it’s tradition to dive into a frozen lake and then other festivities, like a bonfire and The Last Chance Dance, ensue. We witness the friends partaking in such festivities, but we also know, through Malin’s narration, that one of the friends will not survive the day.
“There is something imminent surrounding us, and we have no idea it’s there. Tomorrow morning, we will sit down for breakfast at the dining hall, as we always do, and realize one of us is gone.”
Slowly, Malin reveals how the death of one the friends transpires. (We know it’s not Malin who dies, but otherwise it’s a mystery.) The narration switches back and forth between their freshman year, and also to scenes from Malin’s childhood and the truly twisted family dynamics she had to endure. As the events unravel, so do the layers of Malin’s complex personality, until we come to truly understand why she is so extremely introverted, and why she is determined to come off as “normal” by pretending to care about social interactions with her friends. The author, Cambria Brockman, skillfully ends each chapter so that the reader wants to know more, only to have the time period switch back and forth.
There were so many mysteries to uncover. Who dies and why? What happened to Malin’s brother when they were kids? Why is Malin the way that she is? All of the answers are given in a satisfying, if dark, resolution. I was sad when I finished the book because it was so very good. Going back to something I said in my last book review, that a story’s ending should be both surprising and inevitable, well, Tell Me Everything nails it.
I HIGHLY recommend this novel. Drop everything right now and start reading!