Saturday, March 30, 2013

What We're Reading

I've been reading The Secret Keeper, the fourth book of what I can only describe as literary mystery by author Kate Morton. I'm always confused by these subgenres: Because there is a mystery at the heart of this book, I assumed it would be shelved in the mystery section, but it's not. Maybe because Morton's mysteries aren't primarily murders or crimes to be solved, but rather each of them is a sort of generational secret, a revelation from the past (which might include murder or crimes, but not to be solved by a detective). At any rate, if you like literary fiction, if you like historical fiction, and if you like an element of mystery or suspense, you will like Kate Morton. I have previously reviewed her other books here (The House at Riverton, The Distant Hours, The Forgotten Garden), all favorably, and this book is true to form.

In fact, in some ways one might say that Kate Morton is writing the same book over and over, except that she does it so well, you don't mind some similarities. It is obvious that what interests her is looking into the (fairly recent) past and exploring the hidden depths of her characters. Her formula, if you want to call it that, is to tell the story from two or three points of view, with those characters usually being related to one another--mostly daughters/siblings exploring their mothers' past, with some event that triggers curiosity followed by research followed in some cases by obsession until the mystery is solved, the secret revealed. But the plots are more complex than that, because she also brings in a whole host of more peripheral characters, from both the present and the past, to take the story in unexpected directions, reveal key points, and keep the protagonist(s) on their toes.

This book begins with 16-year-old Laurel, lazing away the afternoon in her treehouse at the family farm. She sees a man coming up the road as her mother and baby brother come out of the house; and then something shocking takes place that changes everything she knows and believes about her family and particularly about her mother, Dorothy.

Fifty years later, in the present, Laurel is a successful actress who has come home to celebrate her mother's 90th birthday. When she sees just how frail her mother has become, Laurel realizes this may be her last chance to find answers to the many questions from that day that still haunt her, and sets out to document her mother's life, based on vague clues gleaned from her cryptic comments.

Dorothy’s story starts in pre-World War II England, takes the reader through the Blitz and into the 1960s as the family Laurel knew in childhood--her caring parents, John and Dorothy, and her sisters and brother--was created. It is the history of Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy, three people from vastly different backgrounds, whose fates are bound up together in the midst of war by thievery, deception, murder, and love.

I hesitate to say this is the best yet, because I so enjoyed The Forgotten Garden; but I can definitely say that the secret was masterfully revealed, with the suspense being maintained until the final page. I didn't have a clue about what had really happened until maybe a page or two before it was revealed, and once it was, I gave a gasp of satisfaction at what the author had achieved.

If you like these kinds of books, with characters looking for enlightenment about the mysteries of the past, another author you might enjoy is Robert Goddard. I discovered his books years ago by happenstance (he was shelved next to one of my favorites, Rumer Godden, and one day I picked one up), and read all of them, later sharing them successfully with my father and numerous library patrons. I particularly enjoyed his books Caught in the Light and Play to the End.

The Kate Morton books are also available as audio books.

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