I’ve always been drawn to novels built around secrets—how they are hidden, how they are uncovered and what they do to the people who live with them. To me, the perfect read is a mystery set in a community with its own intricate codes and dynamics that create and shape its secrets. I love having a front row seat into the how and why a secret came into being, the effect it has on those who know and those who don’t, and the ultimate resolution of revelation.
With The Insomniacs, I set out to write an atmospheric, tense novel that takes place in the aftermath of an accident, where pieces of my main character’s memory are missing and something in her immediate world feels off—something she can’t quite put her finger on. Set in a close-knit neighborhood, I was interested in the lengths people will go to protect a narrative and pretend that everything is okay. I also wanted to explore the moment a secret comes out and the familiar is no longer recognizable, when what you took for rock solid truth shifts and everything goes askew.
With their riveting mysteries, the novels highlighted below inspired me as I wrote The Insomniacs. What they have in common is that each of them constructs a tight, distinctive world—be it a family, a friend group, a team—where secrets are kept, poked at and unearthed. These novels delve into pasts, relationships, and entrenched patterns that often hold people in place like a prison. These stories show how you can be crushed as you excavate knowledge about someone you love. Some characters ultimately lose the struggle under a secret’s weight. Others are set free.
Sadie by Courtney Summers
Girls go missing all the time, is the sentiment of a popular podcast host before he answers the call to investigate what happened to nineteen-year-old Sadie Hunter. The novel brilliantly alternates between what becomes a blockbuster podcast following Sadie’s trail and Sadie’s own journey to avenge her little sister’s murder. What stuck with me long after I finished the book, were Sadie’s harrowing accounts of the subtle, eerie dynamics inside her mother’s trailer and Sadie’s best efforts to protect her sister and ultimate helplessness against a tide too powerful to stop.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
From the opening lines of The Virgin Suicides, we know all five Lisbon girls committed suicide. This is not a murder mystery since the facts are plain. Instead the novel becomes an examination into the sisters’ motivations, the details meticulously poured over by the boys who worshipped them. Twenty years later, they reconstruct the eighteen-month period between the first suicide and the last, trying to find meaning. What I love most about this novel is how Eugenides perfectly captures the feeling of youthful longing and obsession that can take place when your neighborhood is your entire world. The worshipped take on an almost mythical quality.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Beginning with the mysterious death of their favorite child, a Chinese American family wonders how well they actually knew their teenage daughter. Set in small-town Ohio in the 1970s, the novel is a brilliant portrayal of family dynamics pre and post-death. We see the slow creep of damage as parents pin their hopes on their children for what they can’t achieve themselves and how so much goes unspoken as a means of survival.
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
The novel centers around a family’s laser focus on their daughter’s gymnastics career. When a hit and run accident shakes their gymnastics community and disrupts the working order, a mother takes a closer look at her own family. The novel asks the question, how well do you know the people you love most? Do you know the real person, not just the body whose every need and injury you attend to? Megan Abbot is an absolute master of mystery and suspense, making the ordinary suddenly strange.
One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus
McManus starts with a brilliant premise: at BayView High, five kids walk into detention, by the end, one of them is dead. From there, the novel is a whip smart whodunnit and what I love most is the deconstruction of the character archetypes. We have the brain, the beauty, the athlete, the criminal and the deceased outcast. But McManus is so good with building character that we get insights into who they are as people. We see alliances shift and unlikely pairings and we get a much deeper understanding into what these characters are hiding and why.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
This novel deeply inspired me with its portrayal of the aftermath of an accident and not being able to trust your own mind. What I love is the tone of the novel which is both sharp and dreamy as we read about seventeen-year-old Cadence’s headaches and pain as she tries to piece together her accident that took place two summers before on her family’s private island where it’s too easy to get lulled by the idyllic setting and long summer days. Lockhart creates an entire lore about a perfect Kennedy-like family and what it means to uphold the family myth, even if you have to lie.