Well, I shouldn't use the word charming to describe Eva Rice's The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, as that's a word I tend to overuse and you'll stop believing me (though it is charming), so how about utterly delightful? Eva Rice is a talented author. She's made me feel nostalgic for a time I've never even experienced. While I actually like the cover, as it's very evocative of a period long gone, the girly pastels make a potential reader immediately think--chick lit (and perhaps choose to move on to the next book on the shelf). Don't be fooled, though. This is a wonderful story, and it is delightful, but it's not just so much fluff. There's much more to it than your typical chick lit fare. Yes, there is a dash of romance, never saccharine by the way, but it's all the other elements that make this such a pleasurable reading experience. And most importantly Rice is not only a good writer but a good storyteller as well.
England in the 1950s is still suffering the effects of WWII. Rationing is only just coming to an end. The deprivations felt are still relatively fresh in the mind and those loved-ones lost in the War are still mourned. But progress is also being made and people are looking forward to new and happier times. Especially the youth. Pop music has arrived on English shores, and with it American Johnnie Ray (who, yes, did perform in the 1950sand was wildly popular). When eighteen-year-old Penelope Wallace meets Charlotte Ferris one chilly November day at a bus stop, they'll find that Johnnie is only one of their common passions.
Penelope and her younger brother Inigo are like any other teenagers except they happen to live at Milton Magna, a once gorgeous country home dating back to Medieval times, that is now a crumbling ruin. Their mother Talitha, a 'sensational beauty', has had to sell off most of its contents to keep it running, but there's not much left decorating the walls or filling the rooms. Married young, Talitha was deeply in love with Penelope's father, but he died in the War, and it's been hard going for the family ever since, particularly so for Talitha. Penelope spends her time studying Shakespeare, writing endless essays, and occasionally working in an antique store as she bides her time before her upcoming travels to Italy.
"Anyone want to share a taxi?" are the words Charlotte exclaims that will change Penelope's life. While Penelope is a very traditional, perhaps even a little staid, young woman, Charlotte's appeal "came from her very English brand of stylized chaos and breathless excitement." Charlotte's the type of woman who's never not in control and always at ease in any situation. She brings Penelope home to tea at her aunt Clare's messy but very comfortable London flat, where she's introduced to Clare's son Harry. Harry's a gifted young magician who makes the circuit at posh parties, but has been left heartbroken when his American-heiress girlfriend dumped him for a richer man. His rather sardonic nature clashes with Penelope's more reserved demeanor, but he still manages to cajole her into a scheme to win back his beautiful ex, Marina.
Through Charlotte and Harry Penelope is introduced to fashionable high society. You can practically hear the ice in the cocktails clinking, gaze through smoke filled rooms and tap your feet to the jazzy beat of the music in the background. It's so easy to imagine Charlotte and Penelope decked out in glamorous dresses and high heels (à la Holly Golightly, though I know she came along a few years later!) as Penelope acts at being Harry's new amour to make Marina jealous. It's a bit of a stretch as Penelope doesn't find Harry the least bit attractive, though she meets an older American who's both handsome and witty that she can imagine herself with. As you'll imagine all sorts of mischievous social entanglements ensue.
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is filled with irresistible, well drawn characters who are entirely likable. It's a story of love and family and growing up with a few secrets thrown in that need unraveling. I will admit that it was a slow start for me, but once she fully caught my attention I couldn't pull myself away from the story. I'd like to go back and start from the beginning to see what subtle little details I missed. This one is highly recommended. Now the problem is how to choose a book to follow up such a satisfying read.