Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

I adored this book. I finished it in bed last night after reading the majority of it on a blanket in the park under the blazing sun yesterday afternoon; I took a break whilst reading it for no other reason than to read The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and now I wish I hadn't and had devoured it at once. It is like a bottle of Champagne - bubbly and indulgent yet a wonderful treat. From the opening pages I knew I was going to love The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets from the first allusions to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Enid Blyton, and Shakespeare (of course I can't find those quotes just now despite my uncanny memory for the location of quotes upon the page. It reminds me that I need to start writing quotes down as I am reading). I am an avid fan of literary allusion and inter-textuality - why not refer to those books you loved as a child, and still do, in your own writing? It really is delightful for a fellow reader and bibliophile. Worthy of note also is Rice's subtle allusions to the story being a book and that Aunt Clare is narrating her life story to her niece Charlotte, with one of the titles entitled "The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets". I love little tricks like that! It isn't gimmicky or full of literary pretension but simply and passionately prose from a lover of books.

Likened to Nancy Mitford and I Capture the Castle I should have known that I was going to adore The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets; I haven't read Nancy Mitford yet, although I intend to do soon, but I Capture the Castle is one of my all-time favourite books and there were many similarities (not least impoverished family in huge but crumbling house/mansion/castle). I was also reminded of Rebecca on occasion (another of my book loves) in the way that Milton Magna Hall -Penelope Wallace's family home- becomes a character in the novel, just like Manderley (Sarah Waters achieves the same with Hundreds Hall in The Little Stranger, Margaret Mitchell with Tara in Gone With the Wind and, to an extent, Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice in its centrality to the plot), and is a vivid "memory" in the reader's mind as if we have actually visited a house that does not exist, in the way we sometimes think we have met such strongly rendered characters. Is that just me? am I romanticising this too much? Anyway, I am thoroughly enchanted.

Enchanting, delightful, charming ... words often over-used, especially by myself when it comes to descrbing wonderfully delicious books but I truly mean these adjectives! (and my excitement is conveyed by emplying numerous exclamation marks, like a giddy child.) This is a modern novel (2005) that captures nostalgically the 1950s and hearkens back to the wonderful novels of that era and prior. I'm not entirely sure but I even think that Nancy Mitford even makes a cameo appearance at the party at the Ritz, "Ah! If you want to talk books with someone, you must meet meet Nancy." Furthermore, in Eva Rice's dedication she acknowledges Ruby Ferguson as a great inspiration; the same Ruby Ferguson who wrote the beautifully bittersweet and romantic Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, which I was "enchanted", "charmed", and "delighted" by earlier this year.

From the back cover: Set in the 1950s, in an England still recovering from the Second World War, THE LOST ART OF KEEPING SECRETS is the enchanting story of Penelope Wallace and her eccentric family at the start of the rock'n'roll era. Penelope longs to be grown-up and to fall in love; but various rather inconvenient things keep getting in her way. Like her mother, a stunning but petulant beauty widowed at a tragically early age, her younger brother Inigo, currently incapable of concentrating on anything that isn't Elvis Presley, a vast but crumblng ancestral home, a severe shortage of cash, and her best friend Charlotte's sardonic cousin Harry...

The opening lines: "I met Charlotte in London one afternoon while waiting for a bus. Just look at that sentence! That in itself is the first extraordinary thing, as I took the bus as rarely as once or twice a year, and even then it was only for the novelty value of not travelling in a car or a train."

One of my favourite sections: "I don't want to sound too C.S. Lewis about what happened next, but suffice to say that I padded across the room and pulled open the wardrobe door and stuck my hand in. What I encountered was not Narnia, but something even more enchanted."

I was a little disatisfied with the ending but I think for the most part that was because I didn't want it to end ... and yet conversely I also wanted more of a resolution. It is my only complaint though (that and having no idea who Johnnie Ray was).

As many bloggers have pointed out before me: do not be put off by the cover of the book and think this is chick lit because it is not. Nor is it groundbreaking or even heartbreaking (well...) but it is divine (although not sublime)... it is what I thought was a lost art: a simply wonderful modern book.

(Image and Synopsis courtesy of Waterstones.com)


StuckInABook said...

So glad you liked it as much as I did! Not often a modern novel is this joyful. Even though all the events in the book aren't intrinsically happy, the tone of the novel manages to be.

Paperback Reader said...

Agreed; some of the events are quite tragic but it does manage to remain upbeat and hopeful in the end.

Cornflower said...

I've had this book on my wishlist for ages and I really must read it as you've reinforced the view I got from Simon's piece on it.
Thankyou! (and do read Nancy Mitford a.s.a.p.)

Paperback Reader said...

Oh do read it, Cornflower!
I heartily agree with Simon (and Danielle at A Work in Progress); we all loved it.

I'll also let you know once I've read Nancy Mitford - I have a Penguin Classic collection of three of her novels and plan to read them this month. Promise.

Nymeth said...

It reminded you of the lovely I Capture the Castle AND of Rebecca? Clearly I must read this book! Loved your review :)

Paperback Reader said...

Thank you, Ana!

It isn't a classic like those two (and they are both such favourites of mine) but it is delightful. I have been recommending it to friends and family all week as it was such a good, comforting, read. Rice manages to capture a lost time. As with Carter, I enjoyed her literary allusion; she too does it playfully without any pretension, albeit with more "lowbrow" examples (fun ones such as the Narnia books).