THE SECRET OF EVERYTHING
Author: Barbara O’Neal
Pub Date: December 2009
In this spectacular new novel, Barbara O’Neal delivers a generous helping of the best in life–family, food, and love–in the story of a woman’s search for the one thing worth more than anything.
At thirty-seven, Tessa Harlow is still working her way down her list of goals to “fall in love and have a family.” A self-described rolling stone, Tessa leads hiking tours for adventurous vacationers–it’s a job that’s taken her around the world but never a step closer to home. Then a freak injury during a trip already marred by tragedy forces her to begin her greatest adventure of all.
Located high in the New Mexico mountains, Las Ladronas has become a magnet for the very wealthy and very hip, but once upon a time it was the setting of a childhood trauma Tessa can only half remember. Now, as she rediscovers both her old hometown and her past, Tessa is drawn to search-and-rescue worker Vince Grasso. The handsome widower isn’t her type. No more inclined to settle down than Tessa, Vince is the father of three, including an eight-year-old girl as lost as Tessa herself. But Tessa and Vince are both drawn to the town’s most beloved eatery–100 Breakfasts–and to each other. For Tessa, the restaurant is not only the key to the mystery that has haunted her life but a chance to find the home and the family she’s never known.
THE SECRET OF EVERYTHING © Barbara O’Neal
On a foggy August morning, Tessa Harlow had finally tired of her long wallow on the Santa Cruz beaches. Leaving her father’s tidy little bungalow as she did every morning, she carried her breakfast down to the surf: a mango fresh from the local grocer, a hunk of sourdough bread, and a hefty cup of tea she bought from the stand on the corner.
Settling on the sand, she skimmed the thick outer skin from the mango and bit into the buttery flesh, mopping the juice from her chin with a bandana. The tea was hot and milky, sweet with real sugar, and the bread—while not quite as tangy as San Francisco sourdough—complemented the mango perfectly.
A woman walked purposefully along the water’s edge, her calves showing ropy muscle. Gulls wheeled overhead. For the first time in months, Tessa wished for her camera. She would shoot the isolated piles of homeless men sleeping on the buffalo grass, and the boats bobbing in the distance, and maybe even the stack of mango skins on the sand.
It was time to get back to her life. She walked to the edge of the waves, dipped her right hand in the water, and washed her face and the fingers sticking out of the turquoise cast on her left arm. Letting her skin dry in the air, she sat back down with her cell phone and a sheaf of papers she’d printed out yesterday at the Internet café near her father’s house. Luddite that he was, he didn’t have a computer of his own, and Tessa had lost hers in a river three months ago.
Three months. The weeks had gone by in a wash of aqua and pale gray, deep-blue afternoons that she spent reading whatever she found at the laundromat or the local youth hostel—battered thrillers, dog-eared romances, ancient sagas. Whatever.
Three months. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. In Tessa’s case, the nail was a spider that had crawled into her bed in the Rocky Mountains and bitten the sole of her left foot. Not such a big thing, ordinarily. It wouldn’t have been this time, if she had paid attention to it right away.
Or if the rain had not been quite so persistent, so unexpected.
Or if the deluge had not softened the earth so completely that a tree fell sideways, taking the trail and her entire tour group down the mountain.
Or if the river had not been quite so high.
Or if . . .
Oh, so many details. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost, and Tessa washed up on the beach here in her father’s land.
Lately it had begun to creep into her mind that she couldn’t exactly live this way. Her wounds, if not healed, were at least pretty well scabbed over. Mostly she could sleep again. Mostly she’d stopped having panic attacks and flashbacks. She had not purchased a new camera, but she would. Much as Sam, her surfer father, would love to have Tessa join him in his aimless drift, sooner or later she needed to explore the memories that had surfaced when she nearly drowned in Montana. Yesterday she’d spent a couple of hours online exploring the town she wanted to visit and had assembled a pitch for her boss.
Flipping open her cell phone, she dialed his number. “Hey, Mick,” she said when he answered. “It’s Tessa. How are you?”
“Well, hello to you, gorgeous,” her boss said. “It’s so good to hear from you. How are you?”
“Definitely getting there.” She traced a long mark on her foot. “They gave me a new cast last week, this one only up to the elbow, and my foot should be a hundred percent before too much longer.”
“I’m glad. How long do you wear this cast?”
“Only another four weeks or so.”
“That’s terrific. Is it tacky to ask when you might be coming back to work?”
“I’m not up to a tour yet.” Maybe she wouldn’t be again. “But we have been talking about the economy and the fact that overseas travel has been so expensive that we need to set up some food and hiking tours in the U.S., right?”
“True, true. You have something in mind?”
“I do.” Tessa shook hair out of her eyes. Too long. She hadn’t cut it in nearly a year, and the humid salt air made it curl. “Have you ever heard of Los Ladrones?”
“New Mexico?” She heard his skepticism. “Pretty rustic for a foodie tour, isn’t it?”
“Some of it. But Los Ladrones is a very chichi spot these days, lots of Hollywood types drifting north from Santa Fe and Taos.” She leafed through the pages in her lap. “A lot of really good restaurants—like, more than a dozen high-end places—and a big organic farm with a vegetarian cooking school, kind of new, small, but getting some attention.”
“Huh. Sounds intriguing. What else?”
“On the weekends there’s a big market in the plaza, with local artisans and all that, and there’s a café that’s been written up a couple of times, in Food and Wine and—” She scowled, flipping through her notes. “Can’t find the other one. Anyway, it’s on the plaza, called The 100 Breakfasts Café.”
Mick was silent, and she gave him space to digest. In her imagination, she could see him sitting at his desk in Santa Monica, drawing cartoon faces down the margins of a yellow legal tablet. “All good stuff, Tessa. What else can we do with it? Hiking? Rafting? There’s gotta be some outdoorsy stuff in the mountains of New Mexico.”
“Yeah, yeah, absolutely. There are hot springs, and a pilgrimage trek that goes to a famous shrine on the mountain, and a river, and a big lake up in the trees. It’s also one of the oldest towns in the area, which means really old, like 1630 or something. A lot of history.” She shrugged. “I can send you all the notes in email. You can give it some thought.”
“Tell you what—send me the notes, but I’m onboard if you want to do the research. It’s worth a week. Look around, see if you think it might actually work for our demographic.”
She nodded, drawing a big heart in the sand beside her. “Excellent. I’ll get out of here tomorrow if you want.”
He chuckled. “Little stir-crazy, sweetheart?”
“Mmmm. Could be. I mean, how long can a person just lie around on the sand?”
“I’m glad. If this is viable, maybe we can get it on the schedule for next year. We have the new catalogs going out in late November.”
As clearly as she could remember, today was August 25 or 26. “I’ll email you the reservations and flight info this afternoon.”
“Good. Welcome back, babe.”
“Thanks.” She hung up and sat with the phone in her palm, feeling both anxious and relieved. It was time. Time to get moving again. Time to open the Pandora’s box of memories that had been haunting her since the Montana debacle.
Now to break the news to her dad. She gathered her flip-flops, her book, and her straw hat. Dressed in an embroidered Mexican peasant blouse and a pair of baggy capris that were so faded they no longer had a discernible pattern, she headed for the boardwalk.
Her father, surrounded by his three rescue dogs, was repainting the menu at his margarita shack in a careful, elegant hand. He’d studied calligraphy at some point and took pride in his lettering. She loved getting cards in the mail from him. “Hey, kiddo,” he said. His voice was as gravelly as a gizzard. “You’re back awfully early.”
When Tessa was a child, Sam had been everybody’s favorite dad. She felt sorry for other kids, who had to go home to somebody normal or—this being coastal California, after all—a pothead who couldn’t keep his sentences straight. Sam was neither. He’d made his living as a magician, so he could do a billion tricks, and his vagabond life meant he had a store of adventure stories he told at random, and he could make a grilled cheese sandwich exactly right, with the bread turned just barely crispy, light golden brown. In his pockets, he carried Tootsie Roll Pops, which he gave away when you skinned your knee or got in a fight or fell for some whopper of a fish story he told.
This little margarita shack had been his dream for a long, long time. Tessa had helped him buy it seven years ago out of money she’d saved over a ten-year period. “Like Elvis,” he said with his sideways grin. “Buying a house for his mama.”
Sam surfed most mornings, talked all afternoon and evening with whoever stopped by Margaritaville. He wasn’t much of a drinker himself, a help if you owned a bar.
This morning he wore long shorts and bare feet and a loose, ancient Hawaiian shirt. His skin was tanned even darker than Tessa’s. He’d recently shorn his steel-gray hair into a crew cut, making him look younger than his sixty-two years, and it was a rare woman who could remain immune to the twinkle in his eye.
“I have something to tell you.” She sat down on one of the stools in front of the bar. “I got a phone call. A job offer.”
“You ready for that?”
“I won’t be leading anything. Just doing some preliminary research for some possible food tours in New Mexico.”
“New Mexico?” He dipped his brush into shamrock-green paint. “Whereabouts?”
He put the brush down, but not before she saw a faint tremor pass through his strong brown hands. “That’s a bad place.”
Tessa raised her eyebrows. He believed that your animals reincarnated, that the Great Spirit sent messages via feathers, and that there was magic in drums.
She believed in none of those things. “C’mon, Dad.”
“I’m serious,” he said in his drawl. “There are bad spirits there.”
“Dad. Bad spirits?”
His lips twitched beneath a thick, glossy mustache that he wore without the faintest self-consciousness. “That’s where you fell in the river when you were little.”
Excerpted from The Secret of Everything by Barbara O’Neal Copyright © 2010 by Barbara O’Neal. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. Tessa has had a very unconventional life, and chose an unusual career as a hiking tour leader. Is that a life that seems glamorous or lonely to you? Have you ever wanted an unconventional career?
2. As a young woman, Tessa set three goals for her life: to see the world, to buy her father a house, and to have a photo published in National Geographic. Did you set big goals for yourself as a teenager? What did you dream of accomplishing?
3. Sam is an unusual father. Do you think he’s a good father or a bad one? Are his lies justified? Do you think Tessa would have had a better life with someone else?
4. Is Vince a better father than Sam? How do you think Vince’s daughters will turn out?
5. The 100 Breakfasts Café is an important meeting ground in the book, and Vita believes that breakfast is “the secret of everything.” She also believes that everyone has a favorite and remembers them. Why is breakfast so comforting? Is it more stabilizing than other meals? What are some of your favorite breakfasts?
6. Natalie has not worked through the grief of her mother’s death, and her stealing is a way to protest the great wrong she feels was done to her. Have you ever known a child who acted out in a similar way? Did you ever feel as a child that people just did not understand you?
7. Natalie and her sister have terrible fights, and yet many of the adults in the book tell Vince not to worry, that fighting between siblings is normal. What do you think? Are their fights normal, or would you have wanted to intervene? Did you ever fight with a sibling?
8. Tessa and Vince have an almost instantaneous and powerful connection, despite the reservations of each. Do you think they will be happy over the long term? Can you imagine what their lives will be like ten years from now?
9. Tessa and Natalie both have trouble connecting with and showing affection for the people around them, and yet both love their dogs openly and have special relationships with these animals. Why do you think this is? What does this say about their characters?
10. A number of the characters in the story are self-described “foodies.” What do you think of this culture in general? How do you think that this aspect of their personalities affect the characters’ relationships with their world?
11. Tessa’s father, Sam, keeps many secrets from his daughter. Do you think that it was right for him to hide this from her or do you think that he should have come clean to her earlier about their past?
12. In a somewhat similar move, Natalie’s grandmother tries to dissuade her from buying an unflattering outfit to protect her, but perhaps ends up doing more harm than good. How do you decide the balance between protecting children and giving them freedom to make their own mistakes?
13. Throughout the story, Tessa struggles with guilt surrounding the hiking accident. Do you think that she should hold herself responsible for this incident? Do you think that Tessa is too hard on herself or not hard enough?
14. At the beginning of their relationship, Tessa and Vince are both hesitant to commit to each other. Do you think their reservations are justified? Do you believe in relationships without commitment?
Jan 2010. 385 p. Bantam, paperback, $15.00. (9780553385526).
Tessa Harlow is on the move again. A travel guide, she’s lived all over the world since she was a child, following Renaissance Faires with her hippie father; but after an accident in a Montana river, she’s been sidelined. When she decides it’s once again time to move, she heads to a small northern New Mexico town called Los Ladrones. The small town is being revived, thanks to the tourists, and she’s testing the waters for work, visiting hotels, restaurants, and churches; but in doing so, she uncovers multiple secrets. Many years ago, she and her father lived on a commune outside of Los Ladrones, now an organic farm, with many of the same residents who now seem to know something she doesn’t. The farm raises more questions than it answers about her family, and memories of something tragic and long buried in her subconscious are resurfacing and cannot be ignored. O’Neal has created a powerful and intriguing story rich in detailed and vivid descriptions of the Southwest.
— Hilary Hatton
from Romantic Times
THE SECRET OF EVERYTHING
4 1/2 stars
Readers will identify with this story and the multilayered characters as the
themes of home, family, love and food have a strong emotional resonance.
With the vibrant and colorful descriptions, you’ll easily be absorbed into
the sights and sounds of Los Ladrones, N.M. And with some of the
tantalizing recipes for dishes served at the 100 Breakfasts cafe included,
O’Neal provides a feast not only for the imagination but the taste buds as
Summary: After a peripatetic childhood and several years leading
adventurous vacation tours around the world, Tessa Harlow tells people she’s
from everywhere but has never felt truly at home anywhere. After a horrific
accident on one of her trips, she decides to take a break and go searching
for her past. This takes her to the mountains of Los Ladrones, where she
spent time as a child. It’s now a draw for the hip and wealthy with its
wonderful restaurants and local art scene. Tessa doesn’t know it, but once
she steps into 100 Breakfasts, the most exciting adventure of her life is
about to begin. (Bantam, Jan., 400 pgs, $15.00)
from Fresh Fiction
Tessa Harlow never thought of Los Ladrones, New Mexico as a hiking tour destination. At least not until her last tour ended in an unfortunate accident. A similar accident at the age of four had erased all her early childhood memories, but this recent accident is bringing them back in broken bits and pieces. Tessa needs to make peace with the loss of life in this unfortunate accident and also peace with her past.
Tessa works as a tour guide for Rambling Tours, based in California. Currently, she is recuperating at her dad’s place in Santa Cruz from s broken arm and a nasty spider bite. However, she is antsy to get back out there to lead tours and comes up with an idea for a tour trip to Los Ladrones. She pitches this to her boss, and he sends her out for a week to investigate the possibilities. Tessa has another agenda in mind, as well.
Tessa was born in a commune near Los Ladrones in the early 1970s, during the hippie generation. She only knows what her dad, Sam, has told her about her life before she almost drowned in a river there. She wants to piece together the small glimpses that are coming back to her and maybe learn more about her years there.
One of the first people she meets in Los Ladrones is Vince Grasso. He does firefighting/search and rescue by trade. There are instant sparks between the two and they both want to see and explore more of each other. However, Vince is a widower with three little children and has issues of his own.
As Tessa explores the area, she also explores her past. She feels if she doesn’t know where she has been, she won’t know where she is headed in the future. Her dad is not encouraging her, telling her there are evil spirits in Los Ladrones. He also admonishes her to look forward, not back. But she learns there are many secrets here, secrets in which her life are intertwined.
You’ll enjoying exploring the past with Tessa and learning the many secrets that unfold. Barbara O’Neal has masterfully woven local culture, the beauty of nature, her love of food and restaurants, and a little romance into this magnificent novel. And there is a bonus — many fantastic recipes are sprinkled throughout its pages.
from Publishers Weekly
Tessa Harlow returns home to her father and her birthplace, Las Ladronas, N.Mex., after a traumatic accident. There she meets Vince, a single father with three high-spirited girls. Vince and Tessa soon become lovers, but know they can’t have anything more permanent, because as Tessa tells him, she’s a “wanderer.” Also, as Tessa snoops into town history, she uncovers secrets that call into question everything she thinks she knows about her parents. Too many interlinking plots and convenient resolutions temper the firm grasp O’Neal (The Lost Recipe for Happiness) has of the spiritual Southwest. In her favor is a talent for persuasively portraying men, women and children and a definite reverence for cooking. So while the contrived climax may annoy, the recipes and the depth of the characters will please. (Jan.)