Kate Morton is the author for Downton Abbey lovers. Her historical fiction pulls the reader into the English countryside and she always, always delivers. In The Secret Keeper she’s upped the mystery quotient yet kept her appealing evocation of British life. At a 1960s summer picnic on her brother Gerry’s second birthday, sixteen-year-old Laurel escapes the chaos to dream in a tree house when a stranger arrives and speaks to her mother as she carries baby Gerry and the family’s special occasion cake knife tied with a bow. Laurel feels that something’s wrong especially when her mother wrests Gerry away as the man reaches for him.
She was watching her mother’s face, an expression on it she’d never seen before. Fear, she realized, Ma was frightened. The effect on Laurel was instant. Certainties of a lifetime turned to smoke and blew away. Cold alarm moved in to take their place.
“Hello, Dorothy,” the man said. “It’s been a long time.”
He knew Ma’s name. The man was no stranger. . .
The next thing happened quickly.
It was the liquid silver flash that Laurel would remember. The way sunlight caught the metal blade, and the moment was very briefly beautiful.
Then the knife came down, the special knife, plunging deep into the man’s chest.
Laurel told the policeman the truth. She answered all his questions and told him that the man seemed scary and that he’d lurched toward the baby. But when he’d asked if there was anything else, anything she’d forgotten, she said, no. She knew she’d told the truth but things felt strange and uncertain. Later that day she realized that she hadn't told the policeman that the man had known her mother’s name. When her father came to comfort her, he told her that the man had been causing problems in the area and that it was over and all would be fine. Then he told her that they’d keep what happened to themselves so the younger children wouldn't be frightened.
And they had. It became the great unspoken event in their family’s history. The sisters weren't told and Gerry was certainly too young to remember, though they’d been wrong about that as things turned out.
Fifty years later, Laurel is a lauded actor, one that reminded this reader of Judi Dench, and she’s headed home for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday, determined to find out what really happened at that long-ago picnic before it’s too late. She retraces Dorothy’s life from before World War II, through her days in London during the blitz and her farm life in the 1960s and beyond. Laurel’s investigation uncovers characters from her mother’s past whose stories begin to unravel the mystery at the root of the decisions marking Dorothy’s life. It is in these characters and their stories that The Secret Keeper shines. Vivian, Dorothy’s neighbor during the war, and Jimmy, Dorothy’s first love, are memorable characters living in a special time that Morton brings to life with panache.
The Forgotten Garden is still my favorite of Morton’s four novels although it isn't as polished as The Secret Keeper. If you haven’t read any of her novels, I’d start with her first, The House at Riverton, so you can watch her writing evolve. The Secret Keeper will appeal to readers looking for a saga offering escape with intriguing characters, social climbing, jealousy, betrayal, and intricate plot twists. Above all though, this novel is about second chances and renewal and readers will love it for that. Kate Morton successfully weaves the lives of English common folk surviving in tiny warren apartments alongside the gentry in their grand estates.
Summing it Up: Read this to escape to World War II London and the English countryside. As Dorothy’s early life in London reveals clues to the mysterious stranger’s death, allow yourself to fall under the spell of Kate Morton’s recreation of Britain during the blitz and in the years after when secrets haunt those that keep them.
Simon & Schuster is putting on a big push for Morton who lives in Brisbane, Australia. She’s in the United States for appearances and interviews this week.
Rating: 5 stars
Category: Grandma’s Pot Roast, Historical Fiction, Fiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: October 16, 2012
Author Web Site: http://www.katemorton.com/
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Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/whole-world-in-her-hands-20121019-27ulv.html