Book Review: Necessary Lies

Necessary Lies
Published By: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: September 3, 2013
Page Count: 352
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher via NetGalley
Audience: Adult - Historical Fiction

Necessary Lies is one of those novels that is powerful, heartbreaking, and intriguing. The novel is set in rural North Carolina in the 1960's. Due to the time period and the setting, there is a vast amount of conflict lurking within these pages. Socioeconomic status, race, gender, ethics, and mental illness all play dominant roles. I loved this book because of how much I learned, how much it made me think, and how much it burdened my heart. This is not an easy read, but it is one that I feel is well worth the time and emotional energy.

The novel is split between two main characters: Jane and Ivy. Jane is a young twenty something who has just graduated from college. Her whole life is ahead of her and everything seems to be going perfectly. She's engaged to a handsome, older doctor who can offer her everything her heart desires, but Jane isn't satisfied with merely being a wife. She wants a career and the chance to make a difference in the lives of others. When she gets a job as a social worker in a rural county, her husband is livid. He can't stand the idea of his wife working with those who live in poverty. He sees her vocation was a source of embarrassment. The complexity of the relationship between Jane and her husband was startling. I can't imagine living in a time period and society where my husband would have treated me as an embarrassment for working outside of the home. Jane has a thirst for social justice; I admire her strength of character. She doesn't allow anyone to dissuade her from what she knows is right - even when it becomes a source of conflict.

In addition, the second character who drives the narrative is Ivy, a fifteen year old girl who comes from a long line of poor sharecroppers. The dynamic of poverty for the tenants on large southern farms is heartbreaking in many ways. People born into this life rarely have the chance to claw their way out. Their social standing holds them firmly locked in a cycle of poverty. Ivy has big dreams and wants nothing more than to shake the dirt and tobacco stains off to head for California. She wants to live in a world where you can make you own way; she doesn't want people to continue to put her down simply because she was born to a poor family. Ivy is one of those characters that will suck you in emotionally. In spite of everything she lacked, she also had a strength about her. 

Jane and Ivy are brought together when Ivy becomes Jane's client. Jane has a hard time balancing her professional side with her heart. She quickly becomes attached to Ivy's family and seeks to make their lives a little more comfortable. Jane's style of social work is not looked upon favorably by her husband or co-workers. She doesn't just see clients, but rather she sees people.

As a history teacher, I pride myself on knowing a vast assortment of historical information and trivia. I fully admit that there are many time periods, people, and events I have no knowledge about, but I'm always eager to learn new things. I honestly never knew a Eugenics Program existed in the United States. I was horrified as I began to read this novel and the nature of this program was revealed. The Eugenics Program was basically a way to sterilize people - sometimes with their consent and sometimes without. In most states, this program was used only for populations with institutions. I knew that in our nation's past, many people with a mental illness or physical disability were treated poorly and were at times sterilized; the treatment of these people has always been something that saddens me. As I continued to read, I learned that the program worked a little differently in the state of North Carolina. Residents of North Carolina were able to be sterilized based on petitions written by their social workers. This system became a way for people living on welfare to be prohibited from having too many children. I was saddened that such a system could be allowed - especially when minors were not consulted about the procedure.

I have long been an advocate for novels that tell the stories that previously have been silenced. Diane Chamberlain has shed light on a tragic element of the southern past and allowed the victims of the program to have others know their stories. While she used a fictional vehicle to help explain the historical event, there was a vast amount of research that went into the creation of this novel. She certainly has made the historian in me proud. Social justice issues are near and dear to my heart as is this novel and its strong female characters.

One Last Gripe: I was frustrated that it took so long for Baby William's paternity to come to light.

My Favorite Thing About This Book: I found this one to be deeply emotional and thought provoking.

First Sentence: It was an odd request - visit a stranger's house and peer inside a closet - and as I drove through the neighborhood searching for the address, I felt my anxiety mounting.

Favorite Character: Jane

Least Favorite Character: Charlotte

Bestselling author Diane Chamberlain delivers a breakout book about a small southern town fifty years ago, and the darkest—and most hopeful—places in the human heart

After losing her parents, fifteen-year-old Ivy Hart is left to care for her grandmother, older sister and nephew as tenants on a small tobacco farm.  As she struggles with her grandmother’s aging, her sister’s mental illness and her own epilepsy, she realizes they might need more than she can give.

When Jane Forrester takes a position as Grace County’s newest social worker, she doesn’t realize just how much her help is needed.  She quickly becomes emotionally invested in her clients' lives, causing tension with her boss and her new husband.  But as Jane is drawn in by the Hart women, she begins to discover the secrets of the small farm—secrets much darker than she would have guessed.  Soon, she must decide whether to take drastic action to help them, or risk losing the battle against everything she believes is wrong.

Set in rural Grace County, North Carolina in a time of state-mandated sterilizations and racial tension, Necessary Lies tells the story of these two young women, seemingly worlds apart, but both haunted by tragedy.  Jane and Ivy are thrown together and must ask themselves: how can you know what you believe is right, when everyone is telling you it’s wrong?


  1. I'm sold. This sounds like something I would enjoy. Your review was excellent! Thanks!

    1. Thank you for your kind compliment on the review. This was a difficult one for me to write because I enjoyed it so much, but it was also a really somber novel in many ways. I'd love to hear what you think about Necessary Lies once you've had the chance to read it.

  2. This book just sounds too much like the lives of people I know. I don't think I'll be reading it because of that. I see and hear about on a regular basis, I do not want to be reading about it too.

  3. Wow, that first line is completely intriguing! Not something I would usually read, but I've been trying to branch out-- this seems like a great place to start :-)


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