Most adults would probably agree that the wisdom that comes with age is in large part due to having experienced both love and the death of a loved one. They’d also probably agree that while the former can be painful, the latter is infinitely more so, and it’s the one thing they wouldn’t wish on anyone else. In Jennifer R. Hubbard’s debut novel The Secret Year, Colt Morrissey isn’t so lucky: Julia Vernon, the girl he’s been secretly seeing for the past year, has died tragically, and to make it worse, he’s had to keep the grief bottled up. Then one day, Julia’s brother Michael confronts him with Julia’s journal, tells him he knows about their relationship and gives him the book.

In the days and weeks that follow, as he slowly relives their romance from Julia’s point of view, Colt will change the way he feels about Julia, his friends, his family and ultimately himself. It won’t be easy, though; Syd, the girl who’s been his pal since grade school, has suddenly taken an interest in him that is more than friendly, and Colt in turn is finding himself attracted to Kirby, Michael’s girlfriend. And at home, Colt’s older brother comes home from college with a startling announcement. All of these elements pivot around the dynamic of the culture clash between Colt’s lower-class neighborhood and Julia’s friends (and boyfriend Austin) from the “right” side of the tracks on Black Mountain.

Teen readers will see a lot of themselves in this book, and that includes some things that parents may find uncomfortable. Hubbard succeeds in avoiding the obvious clichés in The Secret Year; her characterizations are realistic, as is the plot. There are no easy solutions in life, and no storybook endings—we make the best of what fate gives us, and that is what Colt does.

James Neal Webb has more wisdom than he’d like, unfortunately.

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