Secrets of a Charmed Life
By Susan Meissner
Brought to you by OBS reviewer Daniele
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…(Goodreads)
Secrets of a Charmed Life endlessly charmed me. Its story unfolds by way of graduate student Kendra interviewing elderly Isabel McFarland as she relates the story of Emmy Downtree during World War II. Kendra is a graduate student who needs to interview a WWII survivor for an essay, and her professor leads her to Isabel. I was hooked from the moment Kendra asked:
“What would you like to tell me about the war, Isabel?” (p.16)
So we learn about Emmy, who is fifteen in 1940. She has a rocky relationship with her mother, who is frequently cold or absent, and bears the brunt of responsibility caring for her seven year old sister Julia. In her immature, though age appropriate, thinking, she wants to escape her life to experience her ideal, normal life. She wants more than anything to be a wedding dress designer when she grows up and thinks she is on her way to a “charmed life” when she gets a job at a boutique and there is a possibility that she might even procure an internship. Her hopes are dashed when all of the children of London are evacuated to the country. Emmy makes a life changing decision to return to London, with Julia in tow, just as the Blitz begins, and the rest of the tale deals with the ramifications of that choice.
I do not want to delve much more into the plot because that would completely spoil the reading experience, and reading this novel is indeed an engrossing experience. With vivid storytelling and lovely prose, Meissner weaves a story, told from three perspectives, of World War II and present day seamlessly. Emmy does seemingly selfish things for the “right” reasons, and I felt as though I faced her feelings of love, loss, inadequacy, guilt, blame, and hope right along with her. I did not know much about the evacuation of children out of London before reading this, and I cannot imagine how heartbreaking it must have been for all involved to send those so young alone to live with strangers.
Though the story deals with serious subjects, I found the ending to be positive and satisfying. This novel has stayed with me long after reading it and prods me to examine my own burdens. We all have secrets and our own version of the truth based on our own perspectives. We have all…
“made choices, some good, some bad…And then [we] had to live with those choices….” (p.382)
I thoroughly enjoyed this work of historical fiction and highly recommend it to those interested in World War II and fans of Kate Morton.