I chose a lot of “not-my-typical-books” for this past year’s Christmas list. I wanted to read new things, new styles. I wanted to read books while they were still new and people were talking about them. Half of my list was just released or about to be released fiction. I have read about half of the books I received as gifts, and thus far I am glad I made the choices I did.
I had seen Kate Morton’s name often, in the bookstores or online, but always passed her by. There is something a little too quaint about the book covers and titles that makes me presume she is writing for the blue-haired set. I fully realize that this is a ridiculous assumption, and that you should never judge a book by its cover (or title). Yada, yada, yada. But we all do it, in one way or another. Unless you have limitless time on your hands, how else do you skim through a book display, or even more daunting, the search results from Chapters or Amazon?
So I very near did not pick this novel, based on the cover. But something in the description caught me:
During a party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the road and sees her mother speak to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy.
Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress, living in London. She returns to the family farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday and finds herself overwhelmed by questions she has not thought about for decades. From pre-WWII England through the Blitz, to the fifties and beyond, discover the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined.
So here we have historical fiction, wartime London, family secrets, and a mystery. Of course I wanted to read this book.
For the most part, it did not disappoint. The narrative flashes between times and viewpoints. We read about the past through the eyes of Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy, and the present (and her childhood) from Laurel. Only occasionally does this jumping around become overwhelming or confusing – it is generally quite smoothly done. The real story is in the pre-war and war years however, which almost made me wish there was noo back and forth at all. The chapters devoted to Laurel and her siblings seemed superfluous. We did not need to know half as much about them as Morton revealed. They were not necessary to the story at all, other than as proof of where Dorothy’s life went. That, and of course someone had to be narrating the whole thing, discovering the secrets.
“Gerry?’ Laurel had to strain to hear thought the noise on the other end of the line. ‘Gerry? Where are you?’
‘London. A phone booth on Fleet Street.’
‘The city still has working phone booths?’
‘It would appear so. Unless this is the Tardis, in which case I’m in serious trouble.”
[So they were occasionally amusing. I still stand by “superfluous.”]
As with any mystery, there was one main and a few minor “twists” to the plot that made the story what it was. With the exception of one, I guessed them all long before they were revealed. Usually this would lose a book major points, but strangely it did not affect my enjoyment of the novel. Rather than reading in anticipation of the big reveal, I read with a mix of impatience and apprehension, wondering how the characters would react when they figured out what I already knew.
“It was unsettling, Laurel thought, suppressing a shiver, how quickly a person’s presence could be erased, how easily civilization gave way to wilderness.”
So in summary, I would say as a story, it was quite good. As historical fiction, for the WWII era, also worth a read. But if you are in it for the mystery, it is not a nail biter. I will read more from Kate Morton. I truly enjoyed (most of) her characters and her ability to engage the reader.
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Atria Books; First Edition (October 16, 2012)