All the Secrets of the World is the story of two families drawn into dangerous waters by an unlikely and erratic friendship. When a well-meaning teacher assigned Lorena Saenz, the daughter of a single mom who is undocumented,  to work with Jenny Stallworth, the daughter of a socialite realtor and a university professor)  on a science project, she probably congratulated herself when they became friends. Jenny, of course, held the power in the relationship, they were friends when Jenny invited her over. Jenny’s mother was as warm and welcoming as Lady Bountiful and probably for the same reason. Jenny’s father, though, talked to Lorena as an adult, respecting her intelligence. This made him seem irresistible. She was drawn to him and he was drawn to her.

All the Secrets of the World is made up of five books and they are very different. The first is told from Lorena’s viewpoint. It was, for me, the most compelling part of the book even though presenting Lorena as a Lolita rings false to me. It absolves Jenny’s father of his predatory behavior. Lorena is too innocent to see how he is seducing her and blames herself when it all blows up in a confrontation between her brother and Jenny’s father.

Later, when Mr. Stallworth disappears, that altercation looms large. We see this through the eyes of the Latino investigator who is dependent on the approval of a racist white detective he is working under. As the story progresses, it shifts from showing to telling and its themes explore racism, police corruption and incompetence, and even religious cults. And the more it tells, the less interesting I found it.

I read Book 1 of All the Secrets of the World straight through, captivated by Lorena’s story though repulsed by Mr. Stallworth and distrustful of a narrative that put too much agency on her and too little on him. It reminds me of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” the victim-blaming song from The Police. As the book progressed, though, I found myself putting it down more often. I think it has important things to say and it was well worth my perseverance.  Steve Almond had a point to make and he pounded it in rather than letting it slide in by itself. Almond places it in the Reagan 80s, which probably makes its lessons more palatable to all who read it, but if we think we have progressed since then, we are fooling ourselves.

I received an e-galley of All the Secrets of the World from the publisher through NetGalley