No novel in recent memory has enchanted me more than Eva Rice’s The Lost Art Of Keeping Secrets. In fact, it’s going to be hard to even try and review it objectively — I just thought it was that magical, exciting, and engrossing, and if I could build a time machine and travel back to a time in which I hadn’t read this book, I’d be packing my suitcase and returning to last week, friends — let’s experience this novel all over again!
Penelope Wallace is a young woman growing up in post-war London — a city still emerging from the ash of World War II. In 1954, Penelope is battling the typical strife of an 18-year-old — attempting to figure out where she belongs in the world; losing herself in the excitement over her maddening crush on American singer Johnnie Ray. Compounded with that is her devotion to her mother, Talitha Wallace, a gorgeous but fragile woman lost in her memories of the past . . . and of Penelope and her brother Inigo’s father, killed in the war. Try though they might, neither of Talitha’s children are able to be the graceful teens their mother so desires and Penelope, with her father’s fair looks and tremendous height, towers over her petite, raven-haired mother — a fact that Talitha finds very distressing.
Penelope is waiting for a bus the day Charlotte Ferris waltzs into her life, sweeping Penelope up and dragging her to tea with her Aunt Clare and unconventionally handsome, enigmatic cousin Harry. The new friends quickly become inseparable, and Penelope reluctantly brings Charlotte and Harry to the great home she, Talitha and Inigo share with aging servants: Milton Magna, an estate that has been passed down through Penelope’s father’s family for generations . . . but has since fallen into disrepair. Money becomes a dirty word at Magna, where none of the Wallaces have any, but Charlotte and Harry — members of the British upper echelon themselves — care little about that. Everyone seems enchanted by Penelope, a young woman who isn’t the least bit enchanted with herself — but is getting there. And with Harry’s crackpot scheme to make his American ex-girlfriend, the dramatic Marina Hamilton, overwhelmingly jealous, Penelope’s life will shift forever.
Between the lush, descriptive and gorgeous writing, British setting and realistic, moving romance, Eva Rice could have written this novel for me and me alone. Add in the fact that’s historical fiction — set in the 1950s, one of my favorite time periods — and that it deals, all at once and never heavy-handedly, with themes of grief, loss, death, hope, love and, of course, the classic coming-of-age tale, and I can say right now: I’m not sure how I could have loved this book more.
Penelope and Charlotte are the best friends we all long to have: friendly, intelligent and sparkly — full of energy, excitement and the eternal optimism of the young. But growing up under the enormous, dark umbrella of World War II gives Penelope a distinctly unique perspective as a narrator. Unlike her friends — even Charlotte — who seem to feel guiltless now consuming massive amounts of food after rationing has ended, Penelope struggles with her conscience over how to live now that the war is over. After all, she never knew a world without war — and she barely remembers a world where her father was alive. I really related to Penelope — because that’s how many American children feel about growing up in a post-9/11 world. And how I feel, too — I was only sixteen at the time. But I digress.
My own love for Harry, an aspiring magician, developed slowly — but when it hit me, it hit me. His ability to make everything and nothing appear as it seems was just the diversion the girls needed from their crumbling homes and uncertain lives, and I desperately wanted him to get over his ridiculous infatuation with Marina. Harry’s interactions with Penelope made my stomach flip in all the best ways, and I found myself flipping ahead to see when he would appear again. That’s how I know I’m in love, friends — when I just can’t bear going a few pages without seeing him.
But everything in between those pages with Harry? Fantastic. Rice dropped me right in the middle of Milton Magna and, imposing though the house seemed, I would have loved to spend an evening listening to records with the girls, drinking wine and chatting about love, life and nothing. So swept up in the scene was I that it was hard to imagine a time before I’d read about a place like Magna, as much a character in the novel as Penelope herself.
If I’d been in London in 1955 (oh, the joy!), I would have been running to the Palladium to see Johnnie Ray sing — and died a thousand happy deaths just thinking he may have spotted me in the audience. Having been an enthusiastic teenage girl myself, I immediately related to Charlotte and Penelope preparing to see their favorite singer for the first time. Remembering the first time I saw Hanson — a modern equivalent, in terms of fan loyalty, to Johnnie Ray — I can still hear the own desperate tremble of my voice when the boys took the stage. You never feel more alive than you do in that moment the stadium goes dark — the seconds just before the object of your unending devotion takes the stage and lets out one single, perfect note. I’ve never seen an author so perfectly capture those feelings of obsession and lust — a writer so capably explaining what it means to love, truly love, a musician and his music. And not in a mocking way, and that’s the key. Rice just really gets it.
Oh, I could go on and on about The Lost Art Of Keeping Secrets, but I don’t want to take up any of the time in which you could actually be going out to get this book. Lovers of British fiction, England, women’s fiction, historical fiction, post-war stories, love, romance, loss, friendship . . . it’s here. All of it. And the only thing I didn’t enjoy about this novel? The fact that it had to end. I would have easily read another 500 pages without stopping!
5 out of 5!