She stood at a crossroads, half-aware that her choice would send her down a path from which there could be no turning back. But instead of two choices, she saw only one—because it was all she really wanted to see…
The first book I ever read by Susan Meissner was A Fall of Marigolds and I was instantly turned into a fan of her incredible writing style and heartrending story telling abilities. It was then that I decided to read every book this author had on the shelves to date thus far. So, it was with great excitement that I stumbled upon the beautifully poignant Secrets of a Charmed Life.
Historical fiction is one of my very favorite genres, and Susan Messiner’s books always find themselves at the top of my must-read pile. In this historical fiction novel, author Susan Meissner recounts events that transpired in London during World War II, when half a million children were evacuated from the city into foster homes in the countryside. Half a million. Evacuated. On their own. Without their parents. Can you even imagine? I enjoy reading everything I can about World War II and I was surprised that I hadn’t known about such an important piece of history in such a well-documented war.
The book 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 escape the mess of a home her unmarried mother has made and become a 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 a local country woman, 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.
I love how the author is seamlessly able to weave together storylines set in the past and the present, twisting and turning them around each other and finally showing how the past actions have impacted the present. She does not disappoint with Secrets of a Charmed Life, a stunner that plops the reader in the heart of the utter horrors that occurred during the Blitz on London and showcases how decisions made out of longing, fear and guilt can have dire and unexpected consequences.
I could not help but ache for Emmy, a 15 year old at the start of her story, caught between wanting to make her indifferent and slightly cold mother proud and wanting to break away from a home that is far from happy and go after her dreams of becoming a designer of bridal gowns. Sketching gowns has served as a sort of balm for her unsatisfactory life and given her a glimpse of a normal life that she has never had. Her tense relationship with her mother topped with the pressure and responsibility placed on her shoulders to take care of her younger sister, Julia, pushes her to make rash decisions that will have unbelievable consequences that follow her like a shadow the rest of her life.
Mixed in with Emily's story are journal entries from Julia, entries that perfectly show how trauma and war can so completely shape a life into something filled with guilt, fear and grief that paralyzes a person emotionally and makes it hard to move on from what they experienced as well as a need to control whatever parts of life they can after having so little control over life as it broke apart around them. I found Julia's inner turmoil and struggle to be simply heartbreaking but so vital to give the reader the true experience of someone who had gone through what Julia and Emmy went through.
London itself as well as its citizens play a huge part in this story as well. The depictions of London before and after the Blitz are absolutely consuming and the realistically gruesome descriptions of the carnage and destruction is heart stopping. The abject fear and eventual PTSD of the people is fascinating and horrifying at the same time and I felt completely drawn in to all they experienced until I felt like I was slightly in shock myself.
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. It is a must read tear-jerker and is sure to take you on an emotional rollercoaster that is well worth the ride.