More than you will ever know
By Katie Gutierrez
Penguin, Great Britain
ISBN: 978-0241529980
435 p.

Secrets are not just burdens we carry; they also act as shields against adversity. Especially in an inherently patriarchal society, women often hide aspects of their lives to protect themselves from harm, preserve their identity, and free themselves from the constraints of societal expectations.

Using these concepts as a springboard for a fictional narrative, Katie Gutierrez’s debut novel, More Than You’ll Ever Know, offers a poignant study of the secrets women keep to survive and the dangers that might arise from their discovery.

With an unusual story that explores how a woman’s decision to lead a double life results in betrayal, death and tragedy, this is not a catechism that preaches the virtues of monogamy, faithfulness and moral integrity. Instead, Gutierrez presents a poignant meditation on the difficult choices women make as they balance personal ambitions with the heavy demands of motherhood.

The plot draws its creative force from American society’s growing preoccupation with true crime content — a genre criticized for the gratuitous commercialization of true crime incidents for entertainment purposes.

A debut novel with an unforgettable story, it offers a moving study of the secrets women keep to survive and the dangers that could arise from their discovery.

Indoctrination would have us believe that violence against white women accounts for the lion’s share of homicides in the United States, but the statistics defy these myopic assumptions. More Than You’ll Ever Know further delineates this fact by focusing on the plight of the protagonist, who is a woman of color.

However, Lore Rivera is not – as is often portrayed in true crime content – a stereotypical victim killed in cold blood. On the contrary, she is the catalyst, if not the perpetrator, of the crime.

In the recession-ridden 1980s, bank clerk Lore lives in Laredo, Texas, with her husband Fabian and their twin sons. She is the main breadwinner of the family, while her husband struggles to keep his job. Trapped in the banality of married life and the unexpected pressures of motherhood, Lore is looking for an adventure that will change her life and restore her faith in herself.

Opportunity knocks when she attends a wedding in New Mexico and a seemingly innocent dance with a stranger named Andres Russo becomes the basis of a secret marriage. But her secret life as a bigamist devoted to his two families is shattered when Fabian kills Andres.

True crime blogger Cassie Bowman discovers Lore’s story through an article written in 2017 and, intrigued by Lore’s unconventional choices, wants to write a book that faithfully documents her story. After careful consideration, Lore agrees to speak with Cassie on the condition that she not discuss the events that took place on the day of Andres’ death.

As Lore peels back the layers of mystery surrounding her violent and traumatic past, Cassie draws her own conclusions about the murder, which are colored by her own experience of family tragedy.

At its core, More Than You’ll Ever Know examines the extent to which power dynamics can influence the way truth is recorded. Throughout the novel, Lore and Cassie are locked in a silent but powerful struggle to take control of the story surrounding Andres’ death.

Lore would like the book about her life to function within certain parameters and preserve the secrets she has kept all her life. Meanwhile, Cassie is driven by an earnest search for the truth and occasionally ends up taking on the role of suspicious detective rather than chronicler of fact.

Opportunity knocks when she attends a wedding in New Mexico and a seemingly innocent dance with a stranger named Andres Russo becomes the basis of a secret marriage. But her secret life as a bigamist devoted to his two families is shattered when Fabian kills Andres.

Surprisingly, these conflicting priorities rarely result in conflict between the two women. In fact, an unlikely friendship blossoms, fueled by a mixture of empathy and goodwill. During their conversations, Lore and Cassie act as mirrors to each other and become guardians of secrets they cannot reveal to anyone else.

Either way, the unspoken struggle for control continues to cast a shadow over their relationship, but both women eventually find the space and creative freedom to protect their personal interests, albeit with mixed results.

More Than You’ll Ever Know takes an intimate look at the complex negotiations women must navigate as they embrace the challenges of motherhood. Gutierrez does not condemn Lore’s inadequacy as a mother and even points out her boundless capacity to love Andres’ children as her own. But she also recognizes the fact that motherhood is a fundamental responsibility that can affect children’s well-being and make or break their futures—Cassie, for example, is a product of her mother’s poor choices that have long-term consequences for her relationship with her family.

Love remains at the core of the story, even though the romantic relationships the characters begin are fundamentally flawed. Gutierrez emphasizes the importance of steadfast love that is based on sacrifice and helps us cope with emotional disasters.

In addition, love is portrayed as an unbridled force that cannot be governed by social conventions. The only lesson to be learned from Cassie and Lore’s experiences is that love, in all its forms, cannot be pursued recklessly or shown without caution.

In telling their story, the author does not hold the two protagonists captive to the separate voice of the third-person narrator. Cassie’s ambitions and the root of her trauma are presented through a first-person perspective. Lore’s flashbacks from the 1980s are presented in third person to give readers a chance to understand the complexities of her chaotic life. But her observations about Cassie’s present-day concerns and her curiosity about the past follow a confessional mode and are therefore presented in the first person.

Sometimes this technique results in repetitions that could have been avoided with stronger editorial input. Despite this, these omissions can be overlooked because the novel has an unforgettable story and characters that seem to dance off the page and take on a life of their own.

These characters are carefully carved, but readers may have difficulty relating to the choices they make, even if they are motivated by a spirit of communal well-being rather than personal fulfillment. Readers are therefore urged to approach the text with empathy for those who must fight hard battles to survive challenging circumstances.

A commitment to precision and clarity might, meanwhile, raise concerns about the Spanish words and expressions Lore relies on as crutches during her monologues and in conversation with Cassie. Like her questionable choices, Lore’s bilingualism is a dominant feature of the novel and, while it certainly supports her unique identity and authenticity, the frequency of use is a bit over the top.

In some cases, unknown words can be understood in context; in other cases, phrases stand out as anomalies in desperate need of clear explanation. Much like Cassie, who occasionally has to Google phrases that are foreign to her, readers are advised to initiate their own online searches rather than looking for answers in the text.

Language barriers aside, More Than You’ll Ever Know is a powerful indictment of marriage, femininity, and love, and a great reminder of the pitfalls of being human in a world where our choices are under constant scrutiny.

The reviewer is the author of Typically Tanya and co-editor of The Stained-Glass Window: Stories of the Pandemic from Pakistan.
He tweets @TahaKehar

Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 1, 2023

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