“Under Currents” is author Nora Roberts at her best. The list of books by this prolific author fills four pages before the start of the novel, and The New Yorker called her “America’s most popular novelist.” In this story, Roberts attacks an important issue that is too often swept under the rug — abuse. Children, women, and men suffer from abuse by family or partners or even casual boyfriends or girlfriends. “Under Currents” begins by introducing what appears to be a perfect family. However, as the reader quickly learns, all is not as the neighbors and townspeople and even close relatives believe.
On the surface, the Bigelow family seems to have it all: handsome surgeon father, beautiful socialite mother, son Zane who plays ball and gets good grades, and daughter Britt who takes ballet classes and obeys her parents in all things. But only the Bigelow children know the truth, which is that their parents are strict — to say the least — in all things, and if either of them disobeys a rule or command in the slightest, if they even eat too much or talk too much — or too little — the consequences will be dire. Even their aunt Emily, who lives across the lake from them, doesn’t have any inkling about the abuse taking place in her sister’s home.
Zane, especially, takes the brunt of the abuse. Because his father, Graham, is a surgeon, he knows exactly where to hit Zane so that there is no physical sign of abuse. Likewise, when Graham abuses Eliza, his wife, he never hits her on her face. There are no marks to show the beatings, the kicks, and the punches. And Eliza doesn’t appear bothered by the abuse, nor does she make any effort to protect her son. Instead, she tells him that if he would obey and be a good son, his father wouldn’t need to correct him. The mansion they live in is picture perfect, and Graham and Eliza play the part of perfect parents. They attend school conferences and Little League games. Britt takes dance classes. Eliza is involved in the PTO. All is perfect in the Bigelow family — to any and all outsiders.
Zane is within a few years of leaving home for college when the unthinkable happens. His father’s temper escalates, and the result will change all their lives forever. This part of the story is “Part One: The Cruelty of Lies,” and it’s gripping and impossible to put down. It’s also difficult to read at times because Roberts lays out the physical and emotional abuse in clear and ugly detail. Part One is a heart-wrenching experience.
The story then skips a decade. Zane and his sister have grown and moved on. But because he wants to be with his family — his sister and his aunt, who stepped in to raise both children after the Bigelow family fell apart, Zane moves back to Lakeview. But the undercurrents still exist although it will take a while for the evil to surface.
A newcomer to town has faced abuse of her own. Darby McCray has secrets in her past when she arrives at Lakeview, North Carolina, a town she researched and decided to try out as her new home. She’s a wonder with flowers and landscaping, and she’s feisty and strong, but she’s hiding a past that has secrets even she isn’t aware of.
Roberts deftly shows the relationships between Zane, his family, and Darby as she befriends the townspeople, Emily, and then Zane. Darby and Zane have to learn to trust each other, and it’s a slow process. The middle of the story details the romance between them and how they fit into the small town they both want to live in, with both the townspeople and the family.
But then things start to go wrong. When properties are defaced, there are several suspects. And at this point in the story, the reader is aware that there are even more suspects than Zane and Darby might realize. The story is gripping as readers wonder if and when the danger will pass. There is humor, too, mixed in with the suspense. The reader really cares what happens because each and every character in the story now has a backstory, a real personality, and a connection with the reader.
Nora Roberts fans will love this novel, but lovers of suspense will also find the novel a very engaging story. There is something for almost everyone: romance, action, mystery, strong characters, beautiful setting, and a plot with twists galore. There is also the added lesson of abuse – how to recognize it, how to deal with it, how those being abused might feel. It’s real, and as “Under Currents” so movingly portrays, abuse knows no social or financial boundaries. And the victims are the ones who helplessly contribute to the secrecy that surrounds that abuse. They face the danger of threats or shame or both.
What “Under Currents” movingly demonstrates is that each person’s attachment, or lack of same, to his or her family is unpredictable and frustratingly different. While abusive families often produce generations of abuse, that’s not always the case, and while loving families usually result in children becoming loving parents, that’s not always the case, either. “Under Currents” would be a great book club choice for the questions that Roberts raises, among them, “How would Zane’s life have turned out if he hadn’t had a loving sister, aunt, and good friends and their families to support him?” and “At what point is it important to step in if abuse is suspected?” There’s much disturbing depth in this novel to plumb with thoughtful discussions.
This review was originally posted on Bookreporter.com.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for review purposes.