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Review: A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison

A small indiscretion. Is there really such a thing?

From the synopsis: “At nineteen, Annie Black trades a bleak future in a washed-out California town for a London winter of drinking and abandon. Twenty years later, she is a San Francisco lighting designer and happily married mother of three who has put her reckless youth behind her. Then a photo from that distant winter in Europe arrives inexplicably in her mailbox, and an old obsession is awakened.

Past and present collide, Annie’s marriage falters, and her son takes a car ride that ends with his life hanging in the balance. Now Annie must confront her own transgressions and fight for her family by untangling the mysteries of the turbulent winter that drew an invisible map of her future. Gripping, insightful, and lyrical, A Small Indiscretion announces the arrival of a major new voice in literary suspense as it unfolds a story of denial, passion, forgiveness—and the redemptive power of love.”

Not desiring to repeat the synopsis or to go into a drawn-out rehash of the plot, which would undoubtedly spoil it for readers who have not yet experienced A Small Indiscretion, it is, in a nutshell, a mother’s sordid confession to her missing son about a misspent youth. More specifically, Annie Black, the mother and our unreliable narrator, tells the story of a winter spent in London that she feels set the stage for every life event that unfolded thereafter, including her son’s disastrous accident, two decades later.

Within this one winter, nineteen-year old Annie fell in like and lust with two different men, one of whom was married, thereby entangling herself in an awkward foursome and drinking herself into oblivion. This is perhaps not such a shocking story, especially given Annie’s description of her home life. Many young girls who come from broken homes and a background of alcoholism tend to repeat their parent’s mistakes in their youth, and often, even into adulthood. At times, I squirmed over Annie’s frank descriptions of her encounters, and at others, I was exasperated by her attempts to rationalize her behavior.

Annie’s “small indiscretions” in her youth could perhaps be forgiven, waved away by being a naïve, irresponsible, vulnerable girl who is simply looking for what she thinks is love in all the wrong places. However, the indiscretion Annie makes in adulthood, which is by no means “small,” is not as easy to forgive or understand. She is often blunt about her lack of judgment in self-reflection, yet also seems desperate to justify her moral choices.

"I suppose unrequited love is the hardest kind to shed because it is not really love at all. It is a half-love, and we are forever stomping around trying to get hold of the other half.”

Unfortunately, A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison failed to elicit a positive response in me. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Our narrator, Annie Black, is one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve read, along the lines of Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. My frustration towards her, both as a narrator and as a character, continued to mount the more I read. She is clearly a narcissist, and while she seems to feel that this “tell all” tactic will somehow make things right for her estranged son, it seemed to me that she wanted to relive some sick obsession she has with her past of bad decisions.

Speaking of the letter, A Small Indiscretion is the third or fourth book I’ve read in the last few months that narrates in the form of letter-writing, and I’m convinced now that this style does not work for me. I feel that it is gimmicky, and that it distances the reader from the characters and from the story. Annie’s letter jumps back and forth between the past and the present, as she attempts to relate one to the other. Sometimes this format can serve to make the story more compelling, however, the jumps happen without warning, which makes following the plot an exercise in mental gymnastics.

I am angry as I write this review, in fact, as I reflect on Annie, as well as on the rest of the characters (all of whom were wooden, lifeless, and forgettable). Each of them, to some extent, indulges in their whims and sexual fantasies, completely oblivious to how their actions will affect each other, and indeed, themselves. Jonathan, Annie’s husband, is perhaps the exception.

At the end of the story, Annie talks about needing to forgive herself, which seemed so self-righteous to me. I don’t feel she learned anything, nor do I feel that she truly regrets her “indiscretions.” And, spoiler alert, she still gets a happy ending! I suppose this is a reflection of real life, wherein people who do terrible things are still successful and live a happy life.

While A Small Indiscretion was frustrating and cringe-inducing on a personal level, looking at it from a broader point-of-view, it is also an excellent study of human nature. There is certainly much to consider at the end, in terms of the butterfly effect of our actions and on the nature of our entanglements, romantic or otherwise. How much do our childhood experiences contribute to our growth as an adult? Can we break familial cycles of vices, abuse, infidelity, dishonesty? Does complete honesty have a place in our relationships, or is it perhaps wiser and healthier to hold back on hurtful details?

It may seem from my review that I disliked A Small Indiscretion. I was bothered by my reading, yes, but perhaps this is because it hits close to home on some fronts. It was entertaining, and I can see why many readers would enjoy it. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to read it, thanks to FSB Associates, and will likely consider the implications of Annie’s story for quite some time.

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