Sonya Adler, who narrates the novel “We Never Told,” attends Connecticut College and then Harvard University, becomes a writer who is published in the Boston Phoenix, and writes a book about her father’s experience working in New York for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. According to author and part-time Mainer Diana Altman’s back-of-book bio, she attended Connecticut College and then Harvard University, became a writer who was published in the Boston Phoenix, and wrote a book about her father’s…You get the idea.

Cover courtesy of She Writes Press

Of course, novelists are well within their rights to borrow from their lives; the only requirement is that the autobiographical bits enhance the larger artistic enterprise. Could it be that what doesn’t work in “We Never Told” – and parts of it work fine – results from the author’s too-close adherence to her personal profile?

“We Never Told” begins with a discovery. In her recently deceased mother Violet’s house near the Catskill Mountains, Sonya finds a letter from a caseworker at Children’s Services in Louisville, Kentucky; it concerns a baby boy that Violet gave up for adoption when Sonya was a teenager. This prompts Sonya to reflect back on her complicated family, beginning with the night that Violet told her two young daughters that she was divorcing their father.

Violet Adler, a beauty, felt like nothing more than an ornamental bauble to her husband. Seymour Adler, 20 years Violet’s senior, was self-made but insufficiently well-off to suit her or her parents; “If my father owned MGM,” Sonya notes, “then Grandpa Greenstone would be impressed.” The divorce – something still relatively rare at midcentury and hence mortifying to Sonya – forces her and her sister out of their big house in New Rochelle and into an apartment in Scarsdale with Violet, who dates and decorates with equal zeal.

One day Violet informs her daughters that she has a tumor –“It’s in my stomach.” She says that it can be treated only in Louisville, Kentucky, and that she will be gone for a while; they must tell no one. Not until Sonya is in her 20s does she realize that her mother’s bulging belly wasn’t a tumor but a pregnancy, although she didn’t know the particulars until she found the caseworker’s letter decades later.

Setting aside the question of whether, in what seems to be late 1950s America, a sophisticated high school junior and her older sister, both of whom have boyfriends and have watched scads of Hollywood movies, would really never consider that their mother was pregnant, the problem with “We Never Told” is that the secret-pregnancy story line doesn’t give the novel forward momentum. Violet is sidelined in chapters revolving around Sonya’s personal life, Seymour’s challenges, and various Adler-Greenstone family gatherings. While frequently entertaining and droll, these scenes come across as snapshots, not storytelling.

Another snapshot: Toward the end of “We Never Told,” there’s a scene in which middle-aged Sonya offers a neighbor kid $25 for his pet-sitting services. The boy deems this too much money, and they settle on $10. Why is this scene, which takes up more than half a page, in the novel? The boy isn’t a recurring character, and the encounter doesn’t reveal anything consequential about Sonya, who remains primarily an observer throughout “We Never Told” and isn’t conflicted enough to drive a novel. The reader can be forgiven for wondering: Does the scene with the neighbor kid appear in the book because, as with Sonya’s college history and writing career, author Diana Altman lived it? Now, if “We Never Told” were a memoir – that would be a different story.

Nell Beram is a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor and coauthor of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.”


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