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Book Review: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

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The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a wonderful book. I stayed up late into the night, consumed by the story, which is so brilliantly told I could not put it down until I had turned the final page. What I found between the covers is a great deal more than what the synopsis leads you to believe the book will be about. It is so much more than just “fashionable parties and romantic entanglements in 1950s London.”

Penelope, who never takes the bus, is waiting at a bus stop when a girl walks up and demands who among the small crowd would like to share a taxi with her. Penelope agrees and slides into the taxi with this strange girl who introduces herself as Charlotte. Penelope, for just a moment, thinks about how if her life were a novel this moment would be a turning point, which of course it is. Delighted that Penelope has accepted her invitation to share the taxi, and knowing she would all along, Charlotte takes Penelope to have tea with her Aunt Clare and Cousin Harry.

Aunt Clare, in her sixties, is a beauty still, and with Charlotte‘s help is in the middle of writing her tell-all autobiography. Aunt Clare is just as delighted with Penelope as Penelope is with her, and claims to know her parents. Penelope’s mother was and still is a famous beauty who at 35 outshines her own daughter and Penelope‘s dashing father who died in the war.

Harry, a magician, looks the part with his mismatched eyes, one blue and one brown, and at 25 he seems much older to Penelope who is only 18. At first she finds him irritating and too short, not at all attractive though terribly interesting. Harry however is desperately in love with an American girl who left him for someone much richer and with better connections. Despite the obvious fact that the American girl is self-centered he is determined to win her back, and when he is introduced to Penelope he knows just how he will do it.

Soon Penelope and Charlotte are inseparable. Penelope can not remember a time when she had not known Charlotte and, thanks to Charlotte, Harry as well. They spend weekends together doing normal teenage things: listening to records all night long, talking, and drinking way too much. Even though the book is set in the 1950s, these characters are timeless and the themes universal.

Harry one night convinces Penelope to go to a fancy party with him as his date, to make the American girl jealous. Although at first she doesn’t want to, in the end Penelope goes and has a lovely time. It is the first of several encounters where Penelope must act as if she is in love with Harry and he with her. But in the end who is really acting?

Then there is Milton Magna (the ancient home of Penelope’s family), her brother Inigo, Rocky the very sexy older American, glittery parties with social butterflies, a Rothko, a very early Elvis Presley, and of course last but not least, Johnnie Ray. Each is woven into the story so that you could not imagine it being any other way.

Filled with sharp and witty dialogue, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is hard to pin down as any one thing: a coming of age story, a fun girl romp, a story about the way music affects the soul, a story of true love on the grandest scale. It is those things and much more besides. The end has a hint of Rebecca in it, which, along with many other wonderful novels, is referenced throughout these completely delightful pages, and by the end I felt as if Charlotte and Harry were my friends and I had come to know Penelope almost as well as myself. Can a simple taxi ride really change the course of your life? I can only shrug and ask, ‘Why not?’

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