Book Review: Johanna's Secret (Maya Northen Augelli)
Reviewed by Amber Farley
Johanna's Secret is Maya Northen Augelli's first novel, a tale with a captivating mystery, a charming setting and a touch of romance. The setting of the novel takes place in present day at a rustic garden cottage located in Massachusetts. While traveling up the coast of New England on an impromptu trip after experiencing a painful breakup of a long-term relationship, therapist and part-time author Hennie Barritt discovers the cottage and decides that it is the perfect place for her to finally pursue her lifelong dream of writing a novel. It provides a nostalgic environment and familiarity for Hennie that she desperately needs in order to heal from her painful breakup, work on her book and make a fresh start away from the busy city life she had in Baltimore. During her time at the cottage, Hennie spends a lot of time reflecting on her own childhood and family.
Hennie has always been drawn to a good story, particularly a historical one. She came by it honestly. Hennie and both of her sisters were named after King Henry VIII and his wives. Hennie has strong instinct, natural curiosity and typically good intuition about her surroundings. The more time Hennie spends at the cottage, the more she is convinced that there is a rich history and story that needs to be discovered and exposed. She takes the initiative to learn more. Digging deeper into the history of the cottage, she learns of the unsolved disappearance of an entire family that vanished nearly a century ago from the very cottage that she is now renting. Naturally curious and easily intrigued, Hennie becomes determined to discover more about the history of her house and family who once called it home. As she begins to investigate, Hennie crosses paths with several locals who were familiar with the family's disappearance.
The first is Billy, Hennie's landlord. Billy acts as somewhat of a father figure to Hennie while she gets used to her new home. Billy is the first to give Hennie more information on the history of the town and the background of the cottage that she is renting. From Billy, Hennie learns more about the cottage's previous carriage house that was burned in a fire back in the 1920s, along with the disappearance of James and Johanna Sheffield, the two parents of the family who lived at the cottage during that time. She also learned that the Sheffield family had a nineteen-year-old French au pair, Julienne, who typically slept in the cottage, but that night had been sleeping in the main house having a slumber party with the three young Sheffield daughters while their parents were visiting family out of town, proving there were no casualties in the fire. She learned that Julienne and the three daughters also disappeared shortly after the night of the fire, along with a man named Edward Sharpe. Billy told Hennie that Sharpe was always thought to be the main suspect of the case, but that the local police force didn't do much of an investigation. It still remained an unsolved mystery.
The second person to play an important role in Hennie's new life is Grace, Billy's daughter. Grace quickly becomes one of Hennie's dearest friends in Massachusetts. Grace is an anthropology professor at Dartmouth but spends her summers at home with her dad Billy. Grace is naturally friendly, charismatic and immediately inviting to Hennie—something that Hennie needs as she continues to get acquainted with the new town in which she now resides. As Billy shares more information about the town's history, especially that of the cottage, Grace becomes equally intrigued. That curiosity grows when Hennie explains that her sister, who isn't typically intrigued by anything historical or mysterious, found a small door in one of the guest bedrooms of the cottage that has a beautiful, ornate lock that doesn't open. No one seems to have a key to the door or knows where the door leads. Hennie has great suspicion that the door has something to do with the disappearance of the Sheffields, their daughters and Julienne. That proves to be all Grace needs to join Hennie on her hunt to learn more about what happened.
The third and final person worth mentioning at this time is Greg. Grace introduces Hennie to Greg, who is one of Grace's childhood friends from the area. Greg teaches British History and is immediately someone that Hennie is physically attracted to, even though she tries to deny it. Hennie learns that Greg is also fascinated by the mystery of the family that disappeared. This mutual interest forms a natural beginning to what ends up being one of Hennie's most important relationships. Hennie learns that Greg's grandfather was a rookie on the police force during the time of the family's disappearance and conducted his own unofficial investigation of the unsolved mystery before he passed away. As Greg and Hennie dig through the items that Greg's grandfather collected and saved, they are drawn into a world of secrets deeper than they could have imagined.
Johanna's Secret is a multi-layered novel—one with twists and turns that will keep the reader intrigued the entire way through. As human beings, we naturally love stories. We connect with stories. We remember stories. We have a strong desire to "escape" the worries, trouble and woes of our everyday life through stories. While there are numerous characters to keep up with, this novel does a beautiful job of intertwining each character into the overarching unsolved mystery. The main character, Hennie, is someone readers of any age and gender will relate to and cheer on the whole way through. This novel gives the reader an engaging story and an enthralling journey to join and be a part of. Anyone who is interested in getting lost in a captivating tale of mystery, triumph, and meaningful relationships will not be disappointed with this novel. The reader will finish feeling both surprised and satisfied.