Secret Keeper

Book review by
Stephanie Dunnewind, Common Sense Media
Secret Keeper Book Poster Image
Cultural peek into 1970s India through a girl's eyes.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Positive Messages

Asha's mother looks down on Asha's friend because she is Punjabi and not Begali. Asha must live within restrictive social rules that say she cannot play sports or leave her home unaccompanied by a male relative. Asha fights against Indian's society's version of beauty, which expects women to be light-skinned and curvy. She retells Grimm fairy tales so the "princesses and peasant girls got slightly more noble, smart, generous, and brave, and less physical." In greeting, women must bend down in front of older male relatives and touch their feet "in a traditional sign of submission." Asha disobeys her family's wishes by going outside unattended and wearing shorts. Reet's uncle intends to marry her off despite concerns about the man. According to social customs, a widow must wear white, give up eating meat for the rest of her life, and never remarry. Reet becomes anorexic in her grief.

Violence

Neighbors gossip that Asha's father's death was suicide rather than an accident. Asha remembers a young wife who tried to cover bruises.

Sex

A group of boys stand outside Reet's house to ogle her. Asha says the boys are "like a bunch of hungry calves who see an udder." She wonders if she could attract the same attention by adding mangoes to her bra. Reet answers, "They don't care if these are real or not -- at least not till their wedding night." The girls' grandmother tells them about her wedding and how her husband promised not to touch her "until I wanted him as much as he wanted me." Asha says when she feels Jay's eyes on her, "my whole body aches for him."

Language
Consumerism

The girls' mother's depression is lifted by shopping.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A brief mention of Asha's father's chain smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know this book highlights 1970s-era Indian customs that will seem very sexist (and likely unimaginable) to contemporary American girls. Asha and Reet's mother suffers from depression; the sisters must deal with a rumor that their father committed suicide. There are some oblique references to what happens on wedding nights.

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What's the story?

In America, where 16-year-old Asha hopes to move when her father gets a job, girls can play sports, drive cars, and even stay single if they want. While Asha, her sister Reet, and their mother wait for news from America, they must live with relatives in Calcutta, unable to leave the house unattended or pursue their studies. Asha's only outlets are her diary, aka Secret Keeper, and her clandestine friendship with the boy next door. As Asha and Reet battle their mother's depression, a worse threat looms. What will Asha have to sacrifice to keep her promise to protect her sister and mother?

Is it any good?

SECRET KEEPER's power comes from the strong bond between Asha and her sister Reet, who brave a stinky toilet to find private time to talk. The dialogue is often clunky, however, and the adult characters are universally unappealing. The bleak picture of Indian society -- albeit 40 years ago -- may discourage readers who want to learn more about that culture.

The ending may be realistic, but girls who expect a stick-it-to-a-sexist-society finale may be disappointed by the way headstrong Asha gives in to an unfair system.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about societal expectations for women's beauty. In this book, set in the 1970s, Asha rails against women being judged on their looks. Has this expectation changed in the last 40 years? Do readers agree with Asha's sacrifice at the end of the book? Would they make the same choice, given the circumstances?

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