Aggie Blum Thompson hatched the idea for All the Dirty Secrets while following the hearings prior to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation in 2018. The now Justice famously used a calendar from 1982 that he kept as a teenager to defend himself against sexual misconduct allegations that surfaced following his SCOTUS nomination. One week in June was blocked off and labeled in all-caps: BEACH WEEK.
As a D.C. private school veteran, I always assumed the practice of packing into a parent-rented McMansion on the Eastern Shore following high school graduation was standard nationwide. But the markings in Kavanaugh’s calendar spurred a slew of magazine articles explaining the local tradition to a largely unfamiliar audience. This sudden attention to Beach Week shaped the backbone of Thompson’s latest novel, which hit bookstore shelves across the U.S. in mid-July.
All the Dirty Secrets navigates two similar deaths that occur three decades apart, through three points of view. One of the protagonists is Zoe, a current student at a fictional private school, Washington Prep. Liza, Zoe’s mom, is a Washington Prep alum and current employee. Though years apart, both the mother and daughter lose friends during Beach Week. Nikki, Liza’s friend who dies in 1994, is the third protagonist.
“I’m interested in the private school world, [especially in] D.C.,” the District-based Thompson tells City Paper. “Every city has a private school scene, but not every city has senators and attorneys general and really powerful people interacting.” (The interactions, of course, take place within and around these local private schools.)
These D.C. power dynamics became Thompson’s fodder for a murder mystery. A former Washington Post crime reporter, she was intrigued by the underbelly of a DMV pocket not known for taking accountability for its legal infractions.
Referring to the city she calls home, Thompson says, “We’re a wealthy, upper-middle class area, and there’s a lot that’s good here, but there’s a sense of entitlement, and entitlement can breed a different kind of crime.” She remembers, as a reporter, following police officers as they broke up large parties in Potomac. The people attending were teenagers, but parents were often present.
“The parents were incredibly dismissive of the police, almost as if they were [their] employees [and] the rules didn’t apply to them,” Thompson recalls.
Her intention with All the Dirty Secrets is two-fold. First and foremost, entertainment is her goal. “I want to give people an escape, the feeling of curling up with a book and forgetting to do your laundry, forgetting your chores, because you’re so absorbed,” says Thompson. “When people tell me ‘I stayed up all night reading it,’ that’s what I’m going for.”
But she also wants her thriller to mirror the real world in 2022. The mother of a high school daughter herself, Thompson aimed to capture the activism so ingrained in Gen Z.
“I wrote this book during the pandemic, during the George Floyd protests, and what affected me was seeing so many young people get out there,” she explains. “I’m impressed with the optimism that they think they can change things, and I wanted to capture some of that feeling in Zoe. That feeling of, ‘This is unjust, and I can actually hold somebody accountable.’”
Central to the tension in All the Dirty Secrets is the conflict between Zoe—an outcast who loathes the entitlement her private school stands for—and Liza, whose Washington Prep fervor and controlling parenting style only make Zoe dislike the school—and her mother—more: “Everyone at Washington Prep talks about inclusivity and diversity, but if you’re even a little different, they let you know,” Zoe narrates. “It’s not blatant like in the movies.”
Zoe is half-Asian. Her mother, like Thompson, is Jewish and her father is Japanese-American. Thompson wrote the character, and others, as she did because she wanted the story to feel realistic.
“I love [domestic thrillers], but sometimes they can seem sort of a very—I don’t know—raceless, religion-less, ethnic-less world,” she says. “I didn’t grow up in a white bread world, and that’s not really what my life is like here. I’m not writing the kind of fiction that examines issues. The story comes first as a thriller, but I wanted it to reflect some of the realities of the world around us today.”
Thompson grew up in Long Island, where one of her best friends was Puerto Rican. That friend influenced the development of Nikki, the third protagonist. Thompson even named the character’s mother Awilda, the actual name of her childhood friend’s mother.
Despite her real life influences, Liza and Zoe are different from Thompson and her own daughter. Thompson made Liza a more controlling parent, the type of mom who obsesses over her child’s success without accounting for that child’s own interests. Zoe is much more apathetic to school than Thompson’s daughter, a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School who is “super involved in everything,” according to Thompson.
She did, however, pull from personal experience when fleshing out the mother-daughter relationship itself. “I think the big anxiety is letting them go,” she says of parenting, “Like, ‘Are they making good choices.’”
Thompson captures her own anxiety well in Liza’s character, but surprisingly, it is Zoe whose perspective she really nails, imbuing the high schooler with a believable amount of complexity and color. The contrast between her and Liza makes for a powerful and timely social message.
Though All the Dirty Secrets is, as many reader reviews have noted, a slow burn, Thompson jumps smoothly between perspectives and decades. Using multiple points of view makes her sophomore novel the absorbing bedtime read she strives for.