By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
“This is something — things that are family secrets, shadows in ordinary life — these are things I come back to again and again and again,” Pittsburgh writer Jane Berstein says of her new novel, The Face Tells the Secret (Regal House Publishing, 2019).
A professor of creative writing and creative non-fiction at Carnegie Mellon, Bernstein has written several novels and a screenplay. Her talent for memoir (she has authored three of those) is put to beautiful effect in this novel that reads like memoir. Events are remembered and connections are made in very ordinary ways. The pieces don’t fit, until they do.
“It was very important for me to write a novel about the repercussions of not knowing. The larger story is she doesn’t know anything. She’s raised in an absence, in a negation of family, of religion, of community, of anything that defines and shapes who we are,” she said.
Bernstein’s gift for understatement serves all of this well, as foundation-shaking discoveries unfold in a lived-in way. There are no big cliffhangers or detective show reveals. Instead, our protagonist, Roxanne, starts to piece things together by having a conversation or a thought in the course of her workaday life.
Roxanne, it should be said, is a wary detective, a woman who doesn’t really want to know the things she doesn’t know. It’s an unconventional approach.
“I wanted to be able to tell a story about somebody who is reluctant to know everything at first. It is not a commonly told story. Usually, the stories we read about secrets, the searcher is really trying to find out everything,” Berstein said. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to actually really ask difficult questions. Who am I? And who are you? And how was I shaped? It can be very tough.”
Just as much as investigating how we sense and cope with secrets, she is able to explore notions of how we love, what it means to love, and how do we feel and give love when it’s not reciprocated. She gets at the very core of how we define and express love.
“It deepened my understanding of love — what it is to just feel something for somebody, who is a blood relative or not. I don’t think the blood relative matters. I think love transcends that.”