"The new novel from the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Distant Hours is a spellbinding mix of mystery, thievery, murder, and enduring love.The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
During a party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the road and sees her mother speak to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy.
Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress, living in London. She returns to the family farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday and finds herself overwhelmed by questions she has not thought about for decades. From pre-WWII England through the Blitz, to the fifties and beyond, discover the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined.
The Secret Keeper explores longings and dreams, the lengths people go to fulfill them, and the consequences they can have. It is a story of lovers, friends, dreamers, and schemers told—in Morton’s signature style—against a backdrop of events that changed the world." (Goodreads)
Dolly: Dolly was a very darkly intriguing sort of character. Her constant need to move up the social ladder, her grasping, manipulative nature and selfish desire to get what she wanted at the cost of others' happiness was positively fascinating from a psychological perspective. One of the other characters points out that she has a bit of a narcissistic streak, and I'd say she also has a tendency to histrionic personality disorder — she likes to be the center of attention (at least in some ways) and certainly likes to think of herself as glamorous. Plus, she's very good at imagining what she wishes her life was like and then living in the fantasy she's concocted (spoiler, highlight to read: she makes up this friendship with the rich woman who lives across the street, Vivien, and in reality they're never really friends). But she takes it way too far, and when reality comes and pokes a hole in this dream world she gets very vengeful, because she doesn't like being brought face to face with the fact that she's still pretty much "nobody." Dolly always wants to be somebody special; she never felt she belonged in her family (and I did feel sorry for her about that, at least when she was younger) and this festers inside her, ultimately turning her into a very, very unlikeable person. It's disgusting what she tries to pull in order to gain a foothold in society. Her pathetic desperation actually causes a lot of harm — the fall-out is greater than even she anticipated.
Vivien: I really liked Vivien and wish we'd gotten even more of her story, but the glimpses we are given are fantastic. I would have liked to have seen a little more of why she ended up marrying a certain man (spoiler: her abusive husband), as Morton only really skims the surface of her motivations (spoiler: her need for punishment). I thought this explanation was a bit too convenient and pat, too much like "pop psychology" rather than actually exploring greater depths of Vivien's psyche. What we do see of Vivien, though, is a very strong person — as a child she loved nature and her family, and she became drained and depressed after a certain incident (spoiler: everyone in her family died, and she blamed herself). Jimmy sort of brings her back to life, and they certainly share a connection and spark.
Jimmy: he's a really good-hearted, honourable kind of guy, and it was frustrating to watch him be so in love with Dolly when it was obvious he deserved so much better. I thought he and Vivien were much more suited to each other than he and Dolly were.
Laurel: her search for the truth was understandable and I particularly liked the younger Laurel (the older one I couldn't identify as well with). I admired that she was so persistent in finding out the truth despite the fact that she was investigating her own mom. Laurel kept on going even though everything she was discovering was bad news, and then in the end she was rewarded for her search.
There are a few settings in here, but it primarily alternates between present-day and 1940s England. Kate Morton's writing really shines in the historical sections; she manages to capture the mood of the times in a way that feels very authentic and puts you right smack-dab in the era she's portraying. The language she chooses is evocative of the time period, and the writing manages to give the reader a sense of wartime life — the outfits they wore, the gritty atmosphere of rationing — without getting bogged down in description. While WWII settings have been done to death in a lot of novels, and there is nothing particularly unique in Kate Morton's depiction, she captures it well.
I admit, the contemporary storyline didn't grab me the same way; I always wanted to get back to the historical. While they meshed together well enough, I think they didn't depend on each other as much as the interweaving storylines of the other Kate Morton novel I've read, The Forgotten Garden. I feel like the past storyline was telling us most of what we needed to know anyway, so the contemporary one didn't feel that necessary. But I did like the idea of Laurel conducting this search to get to the bottom of this mystery, because she was quite young when she witnessed her mom killing someone (not really a spoiler, as it happens very early on) so there was definitely a compelling reason for her to investigate.
There's a twist towards the end that I didn't guess at all! Spoiler: the twist of Vivien switching identities totally jived with the observation that Laurel's mom seemed so different from how she "used to be" — since her mom wasn't Dolly after all.
The way things turn out has a slight bittersweet quality (spoiler: Jimmy and Vivien don't end up together, despite their compatibility; they both end up marrying other people) but it's a relatively happy ending with some karmic justice (spoiler: Dolly unexpectedly dies in a bombing and Vivien's ex-husband is, of course, killed by Vivien).
Final verdict: 4.5 shooting stars. I'm very glad I've found Kate Morton as an author because her writing style and plots are one of the few in adult fiction that appeal to me. I really enjoyed the psychology in here, particularly in the twisted character of Dolly.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book as part of Atria Books' Galley Alley.