Sunday, July 14, 2013

Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

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. 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.

I've heard a lot of good things about Kate Morton's books so when I was putting together my reading list for this year I was excited to include The Secret Keeper. I did not regret my choice when I finished reading the book, particularly because Morton is so very good at bringing her characters to life.
Everybody we meet in the course of the novel is flawed or broken in some way: Laurel is wed to her work and a secret that's older than she is, Dorothy's desire for something more and better rules her life, Vivien is a prisoner of her past, Jimmy sacrifices his beliefs for the sake of love... There is a story there for each of these characters and through them Morton weaves a tale of love, family, growing up, hard choices and decisions with far-reaching consequences.
It's fortunate that the characters are strong because the biggest mystery in the book wasn't all that mysterious for me. I guessed what would be the shocker about half way through and kept reading mainly to see whether I was right and to watch the characters get to the end of the story. Morton worked very hard on making the shocker plausible and on keeping the reader in the dark throughout the book, and yet it wasn't seamless (Gillian Flynn managed to keep me guessing much better in Gone Girl). There were key character traits that just didn't work with the ending, and remembering how highlighted they were made the dissonance only more obvious for me.
Despite this shortcoming reading The Secret Keeper was particularly enjoyable because of the writing. The book is full of lines that I wanted to write down and commit to memory, but for the fear of breaking the spell I didn't, and now that the book is back at the library I wish I had. Fortunately there is the Internet, so here are a couple of quotes that I liked so much I went back to reread them once I was done with the chapters where they appear:
"... people who'd led dull and blameless lives did not give thanks for second chances."
and this paragraph I thought was just beautifully written, with a sprinkling of foreshadowing and a generous doze of significance:
"And as the train whistled its imminent departure, a small girl wearing neat plaits and someone else's shoes climbed its iron stairs. Smoke filled the platform, people waved and hollered, a stray dog ran barking through the crowds. Nobody noticed as the little girl stepped over the shadowed threshold; not even Aunt Ada, who some might've expected to be sheperherding her orphaned niece towards her uncertain future. And so, when the essence of light and life that had been Vivien Longmeyer contracted itself for safekeeping and disappeared deep inside her, the world kept moving and nobody saw it happen."
I did enjoy this book and if you are a fan of lyrical prose and a character-driven story I think you will as well. For my part, I'll be keeping an eye on Morton's new books. She's liable to produce another beautiful novel (hopefully one with a more graceful surprise of an ending).

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