“The Secretary” by Renée Knight portrays the perfect British secretary. Christine is circumspect, loyal, devoted, and willing to give up marriage and her child to comply with Mina Appleton’s every whim and need. And Mina is a generous and caring employer — until she isn’t.
For almost two decades, Christine has taken care of Mina’s life both personally and in her very successful business, running the grocery store chain her grandfather started. Mina is charming and aristocratic. Her father is a lord, and she is a celebrity in her own right. Christine is honored and thrilled to be a part of Mina’s life, and she obeys Mina without question.
Christine’s story begins and almost ends at The Laurels, a setting whose location isn’t clear until the end of the book. Is it a sanitarium, a rehab facility? But like much of what happens in this story, not all is what it appears to be. There is what Christine sees and experiences, and then there is what Mina is actually doing. They are not the same, but Christine does not realize that until it’s too late.
In fact, Christine does not realize how much she has become like her employer until it’s too late. Yet even when she could have destroyed Mina, she has chosen to lie and protect her employer. At the end, she realizes just how much Mina has played almost everyone, including Christine. But because Christine knows Mina so intimately, the manner in which she exacts her revenge on her once-employer is perfect.
The story is told through a series of flashbacks. Christine is in The Laurels and putting together a scrapbook of Mina Appleton and of herself. As she starts going through her newspaper clippings, she tells the story of her start at Appleton, how she became Mina’s secretary, and what happened over the two decades they were together.
Neither of the two women is a very likable character, so the reader will probably not feel much of a connection with them. But the story becomes engrossing, and the reader does want to know what happens. How far will Mina go in her quest for more and more power, and just how far will Christine go to keep her job with its first-class perks? Flying with Mina first class and staying at expensive grand hotels, as well as staying at Mina’s beautiful home (and even having her own room!). But the class divide can be ruthless, and when Christine isn’t invited to Mina’s wedding, the reader’s heart hurts just a little for her.
In the end, both women get what they deserve, and the twisted tale of how they got there is thrilling.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Harper, the publisher, for review purposes.