“Doesn’t it occur to you that somebody is—well, not telling the truth?”
“Lying,” she specified. “Somebody’s lying.”
It all starts with a white lie. When her boyfriend Chad breaks up with her, Dee Morris is humiliated. To save face, she tells her family and neighbors that he is out of town for a job interview. She assumes the story will eventually peter out on its own. But when outside forces intervene, Dee’s little lie becomes a very big one. How far will she go to protect her reputation? And what will happen when Chad returns?
The Little Lie is a stunning work of suspense that builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, toward a shattering climax. The final chapter is a masterpiece—utterly shocking and merciless, but the only way this story could possibly end.
For a while, the plot seems deceptively low-key. It is primarily a character study of Dee, her brother Oliver, sister-in-law Erna, and their lodger Mr. Fly, all of them disappointed middle-aged people clinging to their illusions. Even within the context of this dysfunctional group, however, it soon becomes clear that something is off about Dee. There are hints of a troubled past, especially in her relationships with men. This includes Oliver. No sooner has Chad left, than Oliver starts talking about leaving town as well, beginning a new life somewhere else. Dee doesn’t want that. She wants her brother all to herself. And if Oliver’s wife Erna stands in the way, Dee will just have to do something about that.
Jean Potts takes a deep dive into the psychology of these characters and the small-town New England atmosphere, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Aside from the high drama at the beginning and end of the book, Dee’s lie serves largely as an entry point into her world; while others are certainly interested or suspicious, the one who is most obsessed with Dee’s lie is Dee herself. For a long time, the violence is emotional, consisting of tiny, devastating incidents that wound all the more deeply because the perpetrator uses their intimate knowledge of the victim to determine the most effective target.
Dee kills through kindness, and for half their lives her main target has been her sister-in-law Erna. Oliver and Erna met and married in her southern hometown, but relocated to his native Rushford to deal with a temporary family crisis. Eighteen years later, they’re still there, much to Erna’s dismay. Dee has been wonderful to Oliver and Erna, maybe a little too wonderful. After she went to so much trouble to set up an apartment for them in the family home, it would have been ungrateful to get their own house, even if that’s what Erna really wanted. Dee is always doing chores for them, tidying up the apartment. It leaves Erna with nothing to do all day—not a problem, since the icebox is always stocked with beer.
There was no forgetting the kindnesses; they weighed like a yoke on Erna’s shoulders.
So did the loneliness, the friendless, discontented years of feeling like an exile. But was any of that Dee’s fault? Of course not; if anybody was to blame, it must be Erna herself. Something blind and stubborn had risen up in her, a resistance against Rushford and everybody in it. Something cold, the bone-deep, bone-hard chill that had crept over her when she walked in and saw Dee for the first time, huddled in that little sewing chair, rocking back and forth.
What makes the situation so maddening is that Erna cannot deny Dee really has been a lifesaver in the past. Their relationship is a toxic stew of gratitude and resentment. Only in the aftermath of Chad’s departure is Erna able to find a crack in Dee’s iron self-control. Rather than frightening her, it exhilarates and empowers her. “Poor Dee, she thought—and realized, to her shame, that there was something exciting, even a little pleasurable, about feeling sorry for someone like Dee…The difference between being pitied and pitying…Erna had never seen it until today; how great the difference was, how much more blessed to give pity than to receive it.”
Each of the major characters is refreshingly complex, their behavior relatable and infuriating by turns. The lodger Mr. Fly is always poking his nose into other people’s business. It eventually becomes clear, however, that Mr. Fly is facing serious difficulties and throws himself into his neighbor’s problems so that he doesn’t have to think about his own. Oliver’s passivity is annoying, but it is also understandable. He loves both his wife and his sister. Since it is impossible for any action of his to please both, it’s easier not to act.
Dee is the most complicated of all, constantly wavering between victim and tormentor. Love is her weapon, but it is also the agent of her own suffering, a need so great it can never be fulfilled. It’s hard not to empathize with her sheer panic upon realizing how deeply she is trapped in the lie, which leaves her feeling “cold and hollow. If only she had not had to lie to Oliver too! She could not back out now. She could not stand still, either. She had no choice but to go on.” Even Dee is sometimes startled by how easily the lie becomes a part of her life.
There was no rush. Chad wasn’t going to call, tonight or any other night. It wasn’t true. She had made it all up…Yet the urgency of the past three quarters of an hour had not been feigned. Not at all. The itch of impatience had been as genuine as if it were based on absolute reality.
At first, Dee embraces the lie because it gives her the illusion of control. Even if she can’t get Chad back in reality, she can live in a world of her own making, managing everyone else’s perceptions. As the border between fantasy and reality becomes shakier, however, Dee may no longer recognize the difference.
Dee is hypervigilant in her interactions with the other townspeople. Even the most innocuous comment can send her into a spiral of paranoia—though Potts also uses these moments to show that everyone has at least some kind of a dark side. It’s very easy to let a well-placed barb slip, whether through carelessness or the result of a moment’s cruelty. Sometimes the consequences are small, as when Erna tries to puzzle out whether an acquaintance was really complimenting her homemade dress, or insulting it. Other times, a chance remark may lead to far more dire results. Like Dee’s little lie, one small comment can start a chain reaction.
By the end, The Little Lie has gone from the simple story of a small-town scandal to something more like grand opera or Greek tragedy. The irony is that Dee’s lie about Chad is only one of many deceits she has built her life around. She is willing to take drastic action to avoid facing the truth, preferring to smash the mirror rather than see herself as she really is. For Dee and the other characters in The Little Lie, the biggest lie is the one they tell themselves.
The Little Lie is perhaps Jean Potts’ finest contribution to genuine domestic suspense. In Dee Morris Potts has created one of her most unnerving and deeply disturbed characters. The story hits all the right notes, focuses on the lives of women and their husbands (or in the case of Dee, her intended husband) with the perceptive plot gimmick, a seemingly innocuous lie, serving as the catalyst for all that follows. The final pages are fraught with tension, a neatly noirish touch in the revelation of Dee’s most creepy secret, which leads to a near operatic mad scene. Like the best of noir we know everything was leading to this explosion, that Dee was doomed when she uttered that little lie.
Potts’ work is a testament to the truth that you can plunge the darker areas of the human psyche in an engaging way without recourse to extremely graphic descriptions. You can’t help but keep reading this tale, keenly wanting to know how ‘a seemingly innocuous lie’ will end and what carnage will follow in its wake.