Big Lies in a Small Town


From New York Times bestselling author Diane Chamberlain comes a novel of chilling intrigue, a decades-old disappearance, and one woman's quest to find the truth...

"A novel about art and secrets...grippingly told...pulls readers toward a shocking conclusion."--People magazine, Best New Books

North Carolina, 2018:
Morgan Christopher's life has been derailed. Taking the fall for a crime she did not commit, her dream of a career in art is put on hold--until a mysterious visitor makes her an offer that will get her released from prison immediately. Her assignment: restore an old post office mural in a sleepy southern town. Morgan knows nothing about art restoration, but desperate to be free, she accepts. What she finds under the layers of grime is a painting that tells the story of madness, violence, and a conspiracy of small town secrets.

North Carolina, 1940:
Anna Dale, an artist from New Jersey, wins a national contest to paint a mural for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina. Alone in the world and in great need of work, she accepts. But what she doesn't expect is to find herself immersed in a town where prejudices run deep, where people are hiding secrets behind closed doors, and where the price of being different might just end in murder.

What happened to Anna Dale? Are the clues hidden in the decrepit mural? Can Morgan overcome her own demons to discover what exists beneath the layers of lies?

"Chamberlain, a master storyteller, keeps readers hooked, with a story line that leavens history and social commentary with romance and mystery."--Lexington Dispatch
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416 pages

Average rating: 7.75




Community Reviews

Apr 20, 2024
7/10 stars
This was an interesting read and I would recommend it for a book club or just as a personal read but I did not give it one of my highest reviews because those are saved for ones I just cannot put down. I enjoyed reading this book and liked the characters and the twists and turns in their lives. I also enjoy a story told in two different time periods that come together where some people find that a negative being hard to navigate or just a distracting way of telling a story. I find it fascinating how an author makes it all come together in the end. Overall a good solid story with good characters and a nice flow to the storyline.
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Feb 03, 2024
8/10 stars
Bestselling author Diane Chamberlain says the stories she tells "are often filled with twists and surprises and –- I hope -– they also tug at the emotions." All of her book have one thing in common. They "focus on relationships — between men and women, parents and children, sisters and brothers, friends and enemies." Big Lies in a Small Town is no exception.

The story opens in June 2018 at the North Carolina Correctional Facility for Women in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Morgan, age twenty-two, has been incarcerated for a year. Via Morgan's first-person narrative, readers learn that two unexpected visitors dramatically change the trajectory of Morgan's life on that day. Raised by alcoholic parents who never really wanted her, Morgan also developed a drinking problem which culminated in a catastrophic vehicle accident and Morgan's conviction for a crime she didn't commit, but should have prevented. At the time, she was an art major, but irresponsible and misguided decisions derailed her education and the life she envisioned after graduation.

Now Morgan is face to face with Lisa, the daughter of famed artist Jesse Jameson Williams, and her attorney. She learns that Jesse died five months earlier at the age of ninety-five. He spent the last twenty-five years of his life helping young artists "he thought had promise but were having a hard time with school or family or maybe just heading down the wrong path." None of the women know how or why Morgan was on Jesse's "Good Samaritan radar" -- Morgan never met him -- but he had decided she would be his "next project." Now Morgan is being offered an early release from prison and $50,000 if she agrees to restore an old 1940s mural. Among the complications is the fact that Morgan has no expertise in art restoration, she must live in Edenton, North Carolina, while performing the work, and the restoration must be completed in time for the opening of the gallery Jesse was building before his death. The restored mural must be hung in the foyer and the gallery must open on August 5th. The mural was supposed to be painted by Anna Dale and hung in the Edenton Post Office, but Anna never completed the painting. Jesse told Lisa that Anna "lost her mind while she was working on it," but Lisa does not know how Jesse came into possession of the mural. Although Morgan has no idea how she will complete the work on the mural in time, she can't pass up the "get out of jail free" card being offered to her.

In alternating chapters, Chamberlain employs a third-person narrative to tell the story of Anna Dale, who is notified in December 1939 that she has won the "Special 48-States Mural Competition" and awarded the opportunity to create a mural not for her hometown of Bordentown, New Jersey, but for the Edenton Post Office. Anna has never been to North Carolina and is not prepared for life in a small Southern town. "She'd never had any yearning to travel south of the Mason-Dixon line, and she was glad she'd only be here for a few days. The South seemed so backward to her" with its segregation laws. But the mural must be 12' by 6' and completed by June 3, 1940, in order for Anna to claim the prize money that she desperately needs. Initially, Anna plans to visit Edenton for three days in order to learn about the town and create her sketch of the mural which must be approved by the selection committee. She has just buried her mother and is reeling from her death. Soon it becomes clear that she will need to remain in Edenton so she agrees to rent a room from Myrtle Simms, a widow whose daughter, Pauline, has just married and moved out of her mother's home. Ann brings few belongings to Edenton, but among them is a brown leather journal her mother gifted her shortly before she died, and strikes up a friendship with Pauline.

Chamberlain deftly advances the dual storylines as the two women face the challenges of creating and restoring the mural. Anna has a hard time adjusting to life in Edenton. She is pressured by the male leaders of the community about what scenes should be depicted in the mural. And there is Martin Drapple, the artist who was born and raised in Edenton. Of course, everyone in town knows him and most residents have one of his paintings hanging in their home. Everyone expected him to win the competition -- especially Martin. His wife lets her resentment be known, but Martin offers to assist Anna with the mural after she adapts an abandoned warehouse outside of town into her makeshift studio. Does Martin have an ulterior motive? And Anna becomes the subject of gossip and speculation when a high school teacher asks her to let one of her most talented students join two other youngsters who are helping Anna with the mural. He's failing most of his classes because all he wants to do is draw, and he needs more advanced tutelage than the teacher can give him. The only thing keeping him from dropping out of school is art class, but his future looks grim because his parents need him to remain at home and work alongside them on the family farm. Anna does not understand why the townspeople look down on her being alone with the young African American man in the warehouse as work on the mural proceeds. She is outraged by their blatant bigotry. The young man is indeed talented and Anna wants to guide him toward a future as an artist. He is none other than Jesse Williams, and he and Anna are destined to help each other in ways neither can foresee.

In 2018, Morgan's work on the mural proceeds slowly as she resides with Lisa in the home Jesse left her. Her stress is exacerbated as she learns more about the strict provisions contained in his will and the penalties for noncompliance. The condition of the unfinished mural makes the restoration more challenging and time-consuming than Morgan anticipated, and the scenes it depicts are mysterious and troubling. Did Anna indeed suffer from mental illness while working on the mural? Morgan seeks answers from Lisa's family members, but the one who might be able to answer Morgan's many questions suffers from dementia. As Morgan works on the mural, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Oliver Jones, the gallery's curator who, like her, is eager to unravel the mysteries of the mural and Anna, whose fate remains unknown. Morgan is hesitant to get involved with Oliver for a number of reasons, including the way her previous relationship ended. She is required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and meet with her parole agent regularly, and is determined not to squander the chance she has been given to remain free. But she is haunted by memories of the night that ruined her life, as well as that of a young woman named Emily Maxwell. Can she forgive herself? Should she attempt to find Emily in an attempt to make amends?

Chamberlain explores the emotions Morgan and Anna experience during the months they spend in Edenton in a credible, compassionate manner. She gradually reveals details about Anna's relationship with her mother and her fear that she might be more like her mother than she wants to be. She also believably depicts Anna's difficulties adjusting to life in Edenton, particularly the misogyny and racism that shock and sadden her. Likewise, Morgan is a sympathetic, fully-developed character -- a young woman who had a terrible childhood and must break free of the behavior patterns and beliefs she carried into adulthood that caused her to demonstrate extremely poor judgment. She is earnestly struggling to accept her mistakes and learn to forgive herself so that she can find peace. She develops a deep connection not just to the work she is performing on the mural, but to Anna, becoming extremely protective of her legacy and doggedly searching for clues to her fate. Both narratives move forward at a steady pace, ultimately merging as all of the big secrets and lies that have remained unknown for nearly eighty years are disclosed.

Once again, Chamberlain's storytelling prowess makes Big Lies in a Small Town engrossing and emotionally resonant. Her characters are flawed, but endearing and empathetic. Chamberlain explores racial injustice, domestic violence, and mental illness and its destructive legacy. Betrayal, retribution, and murder factor into an intriguing mystery. True to her writing style, Chamberlain's story is, at its core, focused on her characters' relationships -- friendship, loyalty, resilience, and, of course, forgiveness. And she succeeds at doing what she always does: Big Lies in a Small Town tugs at readers' emotions. Chamberlain provides her memorable characters with a satisfying conclusion to their story.

Thanks to NetGalley for an Advance Reader's Copy of the book.
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Aug 04, 2023
8/10 stars
Lots of twists & turns. Mystery, Art with parallel timelines to keep you guessing! Wonderful character development. 4 stars from me.
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Feb 16, 2023
8/10 stars
4.5 stars maybe it’s because I like to paint, but I really enjoyed this one
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Mar 16, 2022
9/10 stars
I really enjoyed this book and the air of mystery in it. I would read more by this author.
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