Book Review: “Necessary Lies”

This book had me feeling all sorts of emotions and it helped me get out of a reading slump which I am grateful for. I also am super grateful to my bookish friend for recommending the book and the world of Chamberlain’s novels.

Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain follows the lives of two young women in 1960s rural North Carolina. One is a recently married 22-year old embarking on her first job as a social worker. The other is a 15-year old working on a tobacco farm trying to support her family and figure out the rest of her life. Though their lives are far from similar, Jane finds herself suddenly invested in Ivy’s despite many warnings not to get too emotionally involved with her clients.

This historic novel opened my eyes to something that I didn’t think was still in practice in the 1960s in the US: state-mandated sterilizations. Like it mentions in the novel, I knew sterilization was something that the Nazis practiced during WWII but I didn’t realize the practice continued in rural parts of the United States until the 1980s. Necessary Lies, though localized to North Carolina, shed light on the eugenics program that was still exercised in various parts of the country.

As a social worker focusing on a rural part of a North Carolina, Jane’s clients included black and white families living in poverty and relying on state assistance which is the demographic targeted for sterilization. She first encounters Ivy Hart’s family when she’s brought to a tobacco farm where the Harts and another family Jane must oversees lives and works. Ivy’s older sister Mary Ella has already had a child at 15 and along with their elderly grandmother, the two young girls care for and support their little family of four the best they can.

Jane is immediately drawn to the Harts, and Ivy in particular, which both her coworkers and husband warn her is a path she shouldn’t go down. Jane’s compassion is what keeps her constantly worrying about the family and questioning the eugenics program when it’s brought to her attention that Mary Ella was sterilized without her knowledge and that Ivy was next.

Throughout the story, Jane discovers secrets that have her questioning many things and driving her to fight for what she believes in, despite many telling her she’s wrong. Her character development had me invested in her story and rooting for her to succeed in every endeavor she faced. And the parallel between her story juxtaposed with Ivy’s kept me intrigued and reading late into the night.

The secondary characters in the novel were also well written and even though they weren’t the main focus, each one impacted the narrative and contributed to the overall story. I love when each character introduced is given their own story that actually fits with the whole and isn’t just added to be added. I think most of the characters could even have their own longer story written and it would be different from Jane and Ivy’s. I think a huge skill of a writer is to write secondary characters that your readers can love or hate without taking away the focus from the main characters and their storyline.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and both main character’s journeys. I think the novel was well written and well researched and really touched on a not commonly spoken about time in our history. I also really appreciated the style Chamberlain wrote in: switching between Jane and Ivy’s perspective each chapter. I really like novels that have not only a great story, but great characters and Chamberlain didn’t disappoint. I will certainly be adding more of her novels to by to-be-read list.

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