The defining moment of Laurel Nicolson's youth --- despite the idyllic farmhouse where she and her siblings grew up, despite the picture-perfect vision of English country life they created --- was the moment when, at age 17, she witnessed her mother Dorothy kill a man. Ever since, Laurel has kept the truth of that moment a secret. But now that she is in late middle age and her mother lies dying, Laurel grows increasingly curious about what happened that day, what terrible history culminated in that moment of horror at a family birthday party.
"[T]he narrative Morton constructs --- carefully balancing the present and the past --- consistently builds suspense and surprise that will draw in every reader and keep them guessing until the book's final, satisfying pages."
As Laurel begins her search, using her mother's own occasionally lucid statements as well as some mysterious photographs and inscriptions that spark her own research, the reader is cast back in time 60 years to the start of World War II, as Dorothy, a beautiful, flirtatious, and ambitious young woman, makes her way to London to seek independence, fame and fortune. There, as Dorothy navigates an exciting but dangerous London during the Blitz, she falls in love with a young man named Jimmy and develops an increasing fascination with her neighbor, Vivien.
Through a series of unexpected developments, readers start to question everything --- from Laurel's own memories to Dorothy's mental health --- until, in a final twist, author Kate Morton offers them an entirely unexpected perspective that will send them flipping back to see what they missed all along.
The sections of the book set in the 1940s are the more vivid ones. Morton infuses practically every word with the fashion, the slang, the sights and the sounds --- both exciting and frightening --- of this time in London. The three characters at the center of her narrative, too, are each complicated and interesting in their own way --- from Jimmy, an aspiring young photographer who cares deeply for his fragile father, to Dorothy, an ambitious young woman whose worries about class may doom her chances for love, to Vivien, perhaps the most elusive and intriguing character of all. Although Laurel's journey is interesting, it lacks the twists and turns that characterize the 1940s story, especially since the reader is nearly always two steps ahead of Laurel in figuring out the mysteries that unfold.
In the end, it's unclear exactly how much detail Laurel manages to uncover about her mother's youth. What is clear is that she belatedly comes to the realization that her mother had a full life, not to mention secrets of her own, before she ever became a wife and a mother. Some may question whether this realization, which would usually happen to a much younger person, is realistic or genuine. Nevertheless, the narrative Morton constructs --- carefully balancing the present and the past --- consistently builds suspense and surprise that will draw in every reader and keep them guessing until the book's final, satisfying pages.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 26, 2012