October 2009

Family secrets fill debut novel

By Leila Cobo
Review by
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Tell Me Something True is an apt title for this stunning novel. Thought and action frequently find themselves at odds in this fiction debut from journalist and television host Leila Cobo—we start out dipping our toes in what appears to be a clear stream with a firm sandy bottom, but we soon find ourselves in much deeper waters. As the impeccably drawn characters in this narrative begin to reveal themselves, what they choose to share with us isn’t always the truth.

On a yearly visit to her grandmother Nini in Colombia, Gabriella finds her deceased mother’s diary on a dusty shelf. The personal narrative Gabriella has created in her own mind about her mother’s life begins to unravel as she discovers another, hidden life, one that doesn’t match Gabriella’s creation. The diary abruptly ends just before her mother, Helena, took a final, fatal flight to Colombia, leaving Gabriella with a question: was Helena flying to Colombia to join her lover, abandoning her husband and four-year-old Gabriella, or was she traveling there to end that affair?

The contents of the diary form a sometimes eerie parallel to Gabriella’s story, as she finds herself stepping beyond the bounds of her well-ordered life to embrace a forbidden love affair of her own. The intertwining stories, though occasionally confusing in their similarities, are so well drawn that we’re in up to our necks before we know it.

Helena knows she’s justifying her secret life, but she fights to survive. It’s Gabriella’s life that grabs us, though, because we’re rooting for her, and at the same time we want to warn her she may not be thinking straight. At 22, for all her poise and accomplishments, she’s still acting like a teenager, convinced she has a handle on life’s pitfalls and can avoid them, even as she teeters on the brink. Gabriella wants to flaunt convention, but it’s hard for her to follow through, even as she struggles to find her place in the world and put her own demons to rest.

Does knowing the truth of a matter help us at a moment of emotional decision, even if we see where the chips are going to fall? Or are we every bit as vulnerable as if we’d not seen clear? The book’s strength is that it doesn’t give us the answers to our questions, and the author wisely hints that trying to unravel the knot of truth may prove a difficult task.

Barbara Clark writes from Cape Cod.

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Tell Me Something True

Tell Me Something True

By Leila Cobo
Grand Central
ISBN 9780446519366

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