January 21, 2012

Betsy Wickwire's Dirty Secret

Written by Vicki Grant
HarperTrophy Canada
324 pp.
Ages 12-16

Everyone has secrets.  Sometimes we know they're secrets and try to keep them hidden, in closets and in diaries.  Sometimes we don't even know we have secrets, because they're in our repressed memories or not fully realized yet.  Betsy Wickwire, seventeen, has had a betrayal kept secret from her and, upon its revelation, she hides herself away in her Halifax home.  But, to really hide herself away, she needs money.  Everything comes together one day when: 1) she learns of the need for cleaning ladies, who are paid relatively well; 2) she goes to an obscure cafe to avoid people she knows; and 3) meets a former classmate, Meghan, now called Dolores, a green-haired, audacious girl who loves the idea of setting up a cleaning business.  With indifference, Becky goes along with headstrong Dolores' enterprise, Lapins de Poussière (Dust Bunnies) Cleaning Service, and finds herself getting more out of the job than just the money.

While still tormented daily by the loss of her boyfriend and best friend and trying to work out how to deal with it, Becky is discovering a new life for herself, with Dolores and Murdoch, a client's son who Becky met in an intimate bathroom tussle.  She also discovers that the prevalence of secrets amongst their clients (e.g., the need for anti-depressants, hidden alcohol, marital affairs, trashy reading, etc.) make it easier for her to clean their homes.  But the realization that everyone has secrets, even Dolores, ultimately helps Betsy to understand herself, which makes her capable of being a better friend.

Vicki Grant has always successfully merged humour while looking at human behaviour.   In Betsy Wickwire's Dirty Secret, the focus is on how secrets make us human but can impede understanding.  From Lapins de Poussière's pink, fluffy branding, to Dolores' clever repartée with Betsy, Murdoch and their elderly client, Frank, to the shopping trips to Giant Tiger and Value Village,  Grant makes Betsy's new circumstances seem fuller, almost larger than life or, at least, larger than her former life as a popular girl.  The old Betsy, though perhaps considered better dressed, more popular and in with the in-crowd, was an insubstantial version of her true self, and it was fulfilling to share in the transformation with her.

If you're interested in enjoying more of Vicki Grant's wit and well-plotted stories, my recommendations would include these titles:
  • The Puppet Wrangler (Orca, 2004)
  • Quid Pro Quo (Orca, 2005) Winner of Arthur Ellis Award for Best Juvenile Crime Novel
  • Pigboy (Orca, 2006)
  • Not Suitable for Family Viewing (HarperTrophy Canada, 2009) Winner of the 2011 Red Maple Fiction Award

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