Lucy's mom is a compulsive hoarder, and Lucy is sixteen years old. Think how embarrassed you were about your parents when you were sixteen, and then think about how Lucy must feel.
Luckily, nobody at her school knows that Lucy's house looks like those houses on that show, and Lucy is bent on keeping it that way. She's keeping her head down, avoiding close friendships, checking to make sure her clothes don't smell when she leaves the house, waiting out the year and a half until she can get out of that hellhole like her older brother and sister, and hoping nobody ever, ever sees past her front door.
And listen, that may sound like a metaphor, but in Lucy's case it's just true. I swear, poor kid.
Although actually, Lucy applies it as a metaphor, imagining what secrets her classmates might be hiding, and hoping they are just as dire as hers... but she is soon distracted from these thoughts by the events of her own life. For, shortly after suddenly realizing that she has caught the attention of the cute guitar-playing guy upon whom she has had a crush for three years, she arrives home to find that, in a tragic confluence of asthma and National Geographic magazine, her mom is lying dead in the hallway.
I think it sounds funnier than it is. It's not funny. (It's a little bit funny.) It is to Ms. Omololu's credit that she maintains a strict deadpan here. Lucy neither rends her hair nor bursts into song. She is frightened, grossed out, guilty, sad, and overwhelmed. In other words, she reacts realistically. And, exhibiting both the brutal pragmatism and poor judgment of youth, she can't bring herself to call 9-1-1 and allow strangers to come into that house, even to take her mother's body away.
So Lucy puts off calling the paramedics (luckily it's winter, and the furnace in their house hasn't been seen, much less repaired, in years) until she can muck out at least the parts of the house that they will see when wheeling in a gurney. She boxes up newspapers and fills garbage bags by the dozen. While she's doing so, she remembers previous attempts to scrape away at the filth and her mother's reaction when any of her "treasures" were moved. She remembers friendly moments between them. Discoveries both wistful (Oh yeah, mom used to play piano) and grisly (So that's what happened to my hamster) trigger glimpses of her mother's decline, her possible predisposition to this particular kind of madness, the compartmentalized nature of her life.
Lucy does some excellent therapeutic "work" during the course of the book. She discovers, literally, what to keep and what to throw away from her past. She stands up to her bossy older sister, and declares that the mess she has inherited is not her fault. And yet - none of this seems obvious. The conclusions she reaches and the actions she takes seem perfectly organic, and not engineered. Again, this is skillful work by Ms. Omololu.
For one thing, the phrase "mental illness" never appears anywhere in the book. We never "meet" Joanna in the present - she's dead by the time she appears, and our experience of her is entirely through the lens of Lucy's memories. I get that. Hoarding is a mystery to those of us who don't do it, and probably to those who do. Because the motivations for hoarding behavior are still not well-understood, it makes sense to keep observations of Joanna at one remove. In addition, this is Lucy's book, not her mother's. Regardless of why Joanna is the way she is, Lucy is the one who has to cope with her crap.
Boy I'll say one thing for hoarding - nobody has to resort to metaphor when discussing the effect it has on others.
I've got a family member whose house is likely to collapse in on itself at any moment. There are adult children in that family, one of whom lives at home like Lucy, the other of whom left and went far away and doesn't come home. In a note, Ms. Omololu states that she has done research with Children of Hoarders. Certainly one imagines that Dirty Little Secrets will be a much-needed mirror book for people in that situation.
On the other hand, I'm a little amused that first, Lucy's mom dies, and, in the end, Lucy burns the house down - that's got to be some powerful wish fulfillment for those kids, and probably not recommended in the therapeutic context. For one thing, Lucy is left with an even bigger secret than before, one that she doesn't even share with her siblings.
Yet I still say, "Good for you, Ms. Omololu! Therapy is as therapy does, but a little violent fantasy never hurt anyone!"