This is a PSA, Don't Steal Babies: A Review of The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes by Diane Chamberlain
Ya know what type of TV show I really enjoy watching? True Crime. Give me Dateline and true crime documentaries all day every day. I hardly ever listen to music while I work anymore; I only listen to true crime podcasts. I swear on my life that it’s the best genre to work to.
I'm not sorry about that PSA regarding true crime documentaries, but the book I’m reviewing this week reads as one and it’s honestly great. This week, we’re jumping back, way back, to 2006 with The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes by Diane Chamberlain.
As always, a spoiler alert is in order. A trigger/content warning is in order as well. The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes features a sexual relationship between an adult male and minor female that involves gaslighting. There are also a few mentions of sexual assault in the novel, but we will not be talking about that in this review.
Before we get to that first warning though, let’s talk synopsis. The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes follows none other than one Miss CeeCee Wilkes. The year is 1977 and at the age of 16, CeeCee Wilkes has been through a lot. She’s lost her mother to cancer, the father she never met is in jail and CeeCee wants nothing to do with him, and to top it all off, she’s moved around from foster family to foster family since her mother’s passing. On a positive note, she has graduated from high school early and is on her own for the first time; she finally gets to fully control her life. So our heroine finds herself working as a waitress in a college town diner. It’s there that she meets a man by the name of Timothy “Tim” Gleason.
Tim is 22-years-old and begins a relationship with our minor main character. All the red flags have gone off already, and we’re only like two chapters into this book.
But he continues to wine and dine her for a few chapters before he ultimately gets CeeCee to agree to do something highly illegal for him. CeeCee will now be a hostage “babysitter.” For who though? None other than Genevieve Russell, the wife of North Carolina’s governor Irving Russell. And why is Tim kidnaping Genevieve Russell? To get someone off of death row.
On paper, the plan seems easy-peasy lemon squeezy. Take Genevieve to a remote location, call the governor and get someone’s death sentence repealed, release Genevieve, then get the heck out of dodge. What could go wrong?
Maybe the fact that Genevieve is eight-months along into a high risk pregnancy. Oh, and maybe the fact that Genevieve goes into labor in CeeCee’s care. Things go from bad to worse when Genevieve dies after giving birth to a baby girl; a baby girl who CeeCee leaves with and then raises as her own.
Twenty years later, CeeCee has a new name and life, and she’s raised Genevieve’s daughter from a tiny, healthy baby into a fully grown adult with a job, fiancé, and family she’s not close with. Also twenty years later, Genevieve’s body has been found without any evidence of the baby she was carrying at the time of her disappearance. Cops quickly find Timothy Gleason, the mastermind behind it all, and he is ultimately sentenced to death. CeeCee now has a choice to make: let Tim die and live life as she has for the past twenty years or speak out and wreck the world she has worked hard to build.
Damn, this book is good. I seriously couldn’t put this one down! I think there were three days straight where I stayed awake well after midnight to continue reading because I was so invested in this story.
Short review is it’s good and if you have an interest in true crime you should give this book a try.
But you’re not here for a short review; you’re here for a long-winded, disconnected, word-vomit of a review. Let’s start with our main character: CeeCee. When readers first meet her, she’s a 16-year-old who is very mature for her age. Her only motivations when readers first meet her is to pay her rent and save up money to go to college. She’s a kind soul, but she’s still very young. She’s very naïve and is easy prey for Tim. Seriously, she’s extremely trusting of Tim, and of people in general, the world has yet to make her jaded and suspicious of everyone.
As the novel progresses, readers watch CeeCee become an adult. She goes from someone with childlike glee to someone who is constantly on edge. And she’s not wrong for thinking like that. Her life could go belly up at any moment. Readers watch as she builds a life with a name and baby that aren’t hers, and she honestly thrives in the years following this event. She becomes the person she has always wanted to be and has a family, friend group, and career that she loves; just with a fake name and stolen baby.
That is a good chunk of what this book is about. This is CeeCee’s coming-of-age story more than anything else. It’s obviously a lot different from any other coming-of-age novel you could think of, and that makes it so much more intriguing. Her story is about growing up just as much as it’s about her putting as much good in the world as possible to make up for the wrong decision she made in her youth. She can’t take back what she did, but she can be a beacon of light in the world by helping others.
But The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes is about someone else just as much as it’s about CeeCee: Corrine Bailey. Who is Corrine Bailey though? Why, she is none other than the baby Genevieve Russell had right before her death.
Readers certainly spend more time reading from CeeCee’s point of view, but Corrine is featured on nearly every page once she’s born. Even if it’s just CeeCee thinking about the daughter that’s not really hers and her concerns for her, Corrine is on the page.
She too has a coming-of-age story in this book. It’s her character who goes from a child with many fears and triggers to a woman who is learning how to control those fears on her own while the life she knows is basically thrown out the window.
I should mention that even though Corrine is a point of view character, readers aren’t in her mind till the last part of the novel. The story is broken up into three parts, and two out of those three parts are from CeeCee’s point of view. That means Corrine’s childhood is exclusively told from CeeCee’s point of view, as are her high school years, and her early adulthood; don’t expect to truly know her until shit has hit the fan.
I feel that it would have been better had Diane Chamberlin switched between CeeCee’s and Corrine’s point of view more than once. While this switch would not have been necessary until Corrine became a child at least, I feel that an earlier switch would have benefited this book greatly. It would be in a reader’s best interest to get to know Corrine via her point of view before the truth comes out. There would be much more insight into her character, her phobias, and thoughts in general if she was a point of view character for more than just a handful of chapters.
I greatly appreciated that I finally got insight into who she is when her world was entirely changed, but I wish there was more of her. I wanted to know the her before that and what her life was like growing up. I wanted to know her inner thoughts and monologue regarding her fears and what she believes to have caused them. Either keep everything in CeeCee’s point of view or use Corrine’s more.
Now let’s talk about the giant elephant in the room. Yes, I’m talking about the content warning at the start of this post: Tim Gleason. Tim Gleason is a greasy, cheating, lying slimeball who uses everyone around him. And as much as I hate him and his relationship with CeeCee, he is a necessary evil.
Everything about him is a red flag. He’s a red flag in his youth, and he’s still one after two decades on the run. I hate him with every fiber of my being! Unfortunately, he is the catalyst of this novel. Without him the whole plot wouldn’t happen, nor would CeeCee have any character growth.
I would not blame you if you think their relationship is so icky that you couldn’t read this book. I get it. Their relationship is such a large point in the book that you can’t escape it. It sucks, it’s my least favorite part about the novel, but you can’t have this story without it.
This book is still really great though. It made my true crime interested heart jump with joy. You cannot tell me if this book was based on a true story that there wouldn’t be a Dateline episode on it! There would be and this case would blow my mind! I would fall down the rabbit hole for sure.
I highly recommend you give this book a try if you want a crime novel with a different vibe to it.
And with that, I bid you all adieu. I shall see you all next week with a return to form with a book on royalty. Until then, stay safe, was your hands, wear a mask, and read some good books for me.