Penny Vincenzi's latest novel to make an appearance stateside (it was originally published in the UK in 1995), FORBIDDEN PLACES opens with three old friends meeting for an annual lunch. The women --- Grace, Florence and Clarissa --- obviously know each other well, but despite their cordial tone and elegant manners, there's still a tension in their interactions. They want to know Grace's secret, and Florence and Clarissa tell the other woman; Grace, however, reminds her companions that they, too, have secrets that have never been told --- secrets dating back to World War II when so many things changed in all their lives.
Vincenzi's narrative then rushes back to the eve of World War II, before Grace knew either of the other two women. Grace has been brought up in a small English country town by middle-class parents who are thrilled beyond words when their lovely young daughter catches the eye of Charles Bennett, the only son of the wealthiest family in town.
Grace can't quite understand why Charles is interested in her, especially when his mother and his sister Florence are almost openly hostile to her. But interested he is, and before long, the two are married.
Married life is not quite the paradise Grace had imagined, however. Sure, she lives in a lovely home and never has to worry about anything. But her husband can be distant, even cold, and Grace, accustomed to earning her own living, is bored doing nothing but staying at home and overseeing her small household staff. And the more she learns about Charles's prickly sister Florence, affable but secretive father Clifford, and vivacious ex-fiancée Clarissa, the more uncomfortable she becomes with her role in this fine, upstanding family that might not be so upstanding after all.
When war breaks out, Grace uses the social turmoil that follows to bend, or outright violate, Charles's many rules governing her behavior. Despite his protests, she takes a position with the women's Land Army and takes in two young evacuees, little boys from London who, it turns out, will have a far more important role to play in her life than anyone would imagine. As the war churns on and things change forever not only for Grace but also for Florence and Clarissa, the formerly timid Grace travels into unexpected territory: "There were two ways you could go through life, she thought: as driver or passenger, and she was by inclination and upbringing a passenger, accepting what she was told, doing the right, the proper thing, obeying rules, remaining within boundaries. But…the betrayal from so totally unexpected a source…had given her in some strange way the courage and authority to look past those boundaries, into the forbidden places beyond."
Like many of Penny Vincenzi's novels, FORBIDDEN PLACES offers not only a healthy dose of escapism but also a fascinating glimpse into a particular period of history, in this case the Second World War. The Blitz, the women's branches of the armed services, the surprisingly complicated politics of housing young London evacuees, not to mention the more personal politics of trying to keep marriages alive in wartime --- Vincenzi touches on all these topics even as she writes a ripping good epic that manages to draw together violence, betrayal, love, danger, and lots of sex. As in her previous bestsellers, Vincenzi carries her audience along on a tidal wave of supercharged plot tempered by genuine emotion, a thrilling combination that picks readers up and won't put them down again until the thoroughly satisfactory conclusion.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 31, 2011