Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Secrets of a Charmed Life - Susan Meissner

Summary: 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… 

Current day, Oxford, England. Young American scholar Kendra Van Zant, eager to pursue her vision of a perfect life, interviews Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets about the war that she has kept for decades...beginning with who she really is. What Kendra receives from Isabel is both a gift and a burden--one that will test her convictions and her heart.

1940s, England. As Hitler wages an unprecedented war against London’s civilian population, one million children are evacuated to foster homes in the rural countryside. But even as fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, Emmy’s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia’s profound need for her sister’s presence. Acting at cross purposes just as the Luftwaffe rains down its terrible destruction, the sisters are cruelly separated, and their lives are transformed…

(Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. I actively tried to convince myself that it was a great book. I like the design of the cover, I really like historical fiction, and it had good ratings. Unfortunately for me it was just okay. The story itself was pretty good. It was tragic and horrible like all things World War II, but the ending was not what I had wanted. I understand that a story has to go where a story has to go—that a good author lets the story end how it needs to, no matter what they want, but I felt like Meissner had a plan and that plan was going to happen no matter what. Although I can see why it ended the way it did, it just didn’t flow as smoothly as I thought it might. It felt contrived, actually, like too many things didn’t work out when they should have and then in the end there were way too many coincidences that worked when they shouldn’t have. I know I’m being vague here—I’m doing it purposely so—but that’s what I thought when I got to the end.

Another thing that surprised me about this book and how well it did is that everyone talked about how fabulous the writing was. Again, I disagreed. It wasn’t bad writing, and it was certainly above average, but it was not beautiful and effortless and at times it was even a little silly and noticeable (which I think goes hand in hand with the story being forced). It was fine writing, but it wasn’t stellar or even noteworthy.

Also, I didn’t love the characters. I know that people are flawed, I know that some people are genuinely unlikeable, but I don’t necessarily love books where I end up only liking one or two of the people I’ve been reading about for 300 or so pages. Maybe I was supposed to like them? I don’t know. They were weak and selfish and should have had more redeeming qualities.

Now. After all this has been said, it was a decent book. I’ve certainly read worse but I’ve also read better. For me it was just run of the mill. It doesn’t offer a lot to the genre, and I think it’s got some pretty big competitors in WWII historical fiction right now. There are some brilliant books about basically this same thing—women and children left behind in the war—so it’s hard to keep up with those other books. For instance, see my review on The Nightingale. There are lots of people who will disagree with me, I’m sure, but I feel like compared to many of the other WWII historical fic books I’ve read, this one was not one of my faves.

My Rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some discussion of war violence and some discussion of sexual relationships, but nothing overt and it is comparable to others in the genre.

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