Historical fiction is one of my very favorite genres, and Susan Meissner’s historical fiction is in the top of that list.
Her most recent novel, Secrets of a Charmed Life (New American Library, 2015), just released this week!
The books opens with the reader meeting Kendra Van Zant, an American history major studying for a semester in England. Kendra arrives in the Cotswolds to interview 93-year-old Isabel MacFarland, a renowned painter who, prior to this point, has never agreed to an interview about her first-hand experiences of the bombings on London in 1940.
Chapter two quickly ushers the reader to 1940 England where we meet and follow 15-year-old Emmy Downtree for quite a while, from the time leading up to the bombings and years after. Emmy and her half-sister, Julia, are very close, but Emma strongly desires to get out the mess of a home her unmarried mother has made and become and wedding dress designer. She gains the opportunity to work part-time at a neighborhood bridal shop. But, as enemy forces draw closer to England, all of London’s children are evacuated to the countryside (or beyond), including Emmy and Julia. After months under the safe and nurturing care of Charlotte Havelock, Emmy is offered a once-in-a-lifetime meeting to begin a mentorship, and in her stubbornness to return to London, gets separated from Julia during the start of the bombings. The reader then follows Emmy’s multi-year search for Julia and efforts to heal into a somewhat normal life.
Susan Meissner has a masterful use of sensory details in both description and action with strong verbs and vivid analogies.
“As I pull up on to the driveway, the crunching of tires on gravel sounds like applause…” – p. 3, Secrets of a Charmed Life
Through both actions and emotions, the reader gains a strong sense of most of the main characters in just two chapters.
Besides incorporating stunning and obviously well-researched historical detail, this book makes the reader think starting from even page 10 with a discussion of the importance of history. This book considers the events, emotions, and implications of the evacuation on the children, parents, foster families, and neighbors. Even more than a fascinating story about these effects of war, this book is about learning to let go of hurt, appropriately handle the past, endure grief, manage fear, and hold on to hope through it all.
I love that Susan Meissner writes Emmy’s chapters in a past-tense perspective and Kendra’s chapters in the present tense. At occasional times throughout the book, we return to the present tense and Kendra’s interview with Isabel. The present tense structure allows the reader to easily make the switch between the two eras. This book is divided into three main parts, and Part 3 holds some surprises that intrigue and delight. Throughout reading this book, I found myself hunched in empathetic pain with the characters at times, eyes brimming with tears at times, and smiling at other times.
“…when you make a choice, even if it’s a bad one, you’ve played your hand. You cannot live your life as though you still held all your cards.” – p. 298, Secrets of a Charmed Life
If you’re not sure yet about this book, just read the first chapter (available to read on Amazon and other locations). With the very last sentence offered in Chapter 1, I can guarantee you’ll want to read more.
Also stay tuned for a giveaway of this book on Monday!
What is some of your favorite historical fiction?
Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.
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