Secrets of a Charmed Life
About This Book
She stood at a crossroads, half-aware that her choice would send her down a path from which there could be no turning back. But instead of two choices, she saw only one . . . because it was all she really wanted to see.
Current day, Oxford, England. Young American scholar Kendra Van Zant, eager to pursue her vision of a perfect life, interviews Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets about the war that she has kept for decades . . . beginning with who she really is. What Kendra receives from Isabel is both a gift and a burden—one that will test her convictions and her heart.
1940s, England. As Hitler wages an unprecedented war against London’s civilian population, hundreds of thousands of children are evacuated to foster homes in the rural countryside. But even as fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, Emmy’s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia’s profound need for her sister’s presence. Acting at cross purposes just as the Luftwaffe rains down its terrible destruction, the sisters are cruelly separated, and their lives are transformed.
I have read and loved several previous novels from Susan Meissner, but they were all published in the Christian market. Secrets of a Charmed Life is her second novel since leaving Christian fiction for the mainstream/general market, and I was curious to see how that change might affect her writing style and storytelling ethos. The overall writing style in this book was as graceful and descriptive as ever, with beautiful, haunting imagery that really captured each scene.
The external drama of this story is obvious—the London Blitz—but the story’s primary conflict and tension is built around the notion that the choices we make impact lives all around us. Thus the major driving conflict of the story is an internal one: Emmy’s guilt over what happens to her family during the Blitz, and how she spends the rest of her life trying to make up for it, a bit reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. But the historical details of wartime London were astounding—definitely this book’s greatest strength. Meissner’s descriptions of the terror and devastation of the Blitz, as told through the eyes of two young girls, were truly haunting, and contrasted well with the idyllic Cotswolds. From baby turtles in a pond and cozy cottages with stone fireplaces, to Anderson shelters and bombed-out building and mass graves, every single setting in this book came to brilliant life.
While the back cover description led me to expect equal weight between the historical and contemporary storylines, in reality this was all Emmy’s story. Kendra’s handful of scenes actually hindered the story for me because they pulled me out of the historical narrative, interrupting the live “showing” of the action to have the elderly Emmy tell what happened—as in literal “telling,” for the modern scenes were all conversations between Emmy and Kendra. As a result, Kendra was little more than a plot device; Emmy, on the other hand, was a lively heroine, even though I found myself not liking her most of the time. I was mostly drawn to and intrigued by the secondary characters, especially Charlotte and Rose, and even Emmy’s mother was more empathetic for me in the end.
This uneven balance between the two “heroines” led to a greater overall disappointment with the story’s structure. Unlike Meissner’s previous dual-time-period novels (at least all the one’s I’ve read), this one was really disconnected. The contemporary story had nothing to do with the historical, except as that obvious plot device of an elderly woman telling her life story to a younger woman. Huge chunks of narrative time were frequently glossed over in rather omniscient fashion (the bulk of World War II took place in about two paragraphs!), which constantly pulled me from the story. I was then further dismayed when, around 75% through the book, the action ground to a halt and I was suddenly reading a character’s journal. This sudden shift to an epistolary structure was not only jarring but too telling, and I found myself skimming the final quarter of the book.
While there was a sort of romantic thread for Emmy, it was more passive-aggressive and too focused on Emmy alone to quality as a true “romance,” or even to add romantic tension to the story. This book played out as 100% Women’s Fiction for me, albeit in an historical setting. In terms of spiritual content, Emmy describes going to church with her foster family and how she enjoys the sounds of singing and prayers as they echo in the old stone building, but there is no overt acknowledgement of faith on the part of any character—entirely appropriate for the mainstream/general market, but fans of Meissner’s Christian fiction may be disappointed by this, as well as by the language and a sex scene (albeit both mild in comparison with most secular fiction). I would definitely caution parents of teens and young adults to read this book before letting their younger readers do so.
Fans of Atonement or The Book Thief will find much to admire in Susan Meissner’s second offering for the mainstream/general market. While an obvious departure in tone and thematic content from the books her Christian fiction fans may know and love, her signature writing style is as enthralling as ever, with stunning historical detail and characters who tug at your heart.
Available February 3, 2015 from NAL Trade