The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

My roommate does not really own or even buy books. When she moved in and I offered her a bookcase, she said she just needed two shelves. We both read a great deal; she just tends to read magazines, journals, or newspapers. The point of all this is that on a recent trip to London, she bought me a book, which was a big deal for her. It is one of her favorites and I found it to be quite charming.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice (daughter of lyricist Tim Rice) is told from the perspective of Penelope Wallace, an eighteen-year-old girl in 1950s London. Having grown up during the war, she finds herself part of a generation struggling to be young while they still can, listening to music their parents can't stand, falling in love with singers that embody their youths, and indulging in anything that might have once been rationed.

Penelope's family lives at Milton Magna, a medieval ancestral home that is crumbling around their ears and they can ill afford it. Penelope's father died in the war, leaving his very young widow with two young children and the weight of the house's crushing debt. Talitha, a once famed beauty and still devastatingly pretty, is only thirty-five, but rattles away in the house with only her children for comfort as she worries about their poverty. Penelope herself is rather tall and not quite as lovely as her mother (who is constantly being mistaken for her sister when they go out shopping together). Penelope's brother attends boarding school, returning home once in a while to fill the house with music from records that his mother dislikes.

The book starts with an uncharacteristically impulsive decision on the part of Penelope. While waiting for a bus, a pretty girl in a striking green coat announces that she'd like to split a taxi and Penelope takes her up on it. This is how Penelope meets Charlotte Ferris, a vivacious girl who designs her own clothes and shares Penelope's love of American singer Johnnie Ray. Charlotte whisks Penelope off to tea with her eccentric Aunt Clare (who evidently knew Penelope's family once, though Penelope cannot get her mother to say anything on the matter) and the girls become fast friends. Penelope also is introduced to Aunt Clare's son, Harry Delancey, a magician with different colored eyes. All kinds of things can happen to young women in London, particularly when Johnnie Ray is scheduled to come to town and some newcomer named Elvis Prestley is just starting to create a new sound. In exchange for impossible-to-acquire Johnnie Ray tickets, Harry convinces Penelope to attend the engagement party of his old girlfriend and pose as Harry's new girlfriend so he can inspire enough jealousy in the old girlfriend to win her back. Through Charlotte and Harry, Penelope is introduced to a more social world of smart parties and society types beyond the oppressive walls of Magna while still she and her family struggle with their bond to the stately home.

If you enjoyed I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, then you'll find a kindred novel here, though perhaps this is less concerned with the pains of growing up in quite the same ways. There's a bit more poignancy to Smith's novel, but The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is still quite lovely in its own right. Rice paints an interesting picture of post-war American-English relations, particularly emphasizing the importance of music. The emergence of Elvis Prestley becomes a key moment in the life of Penelope's brother, who has his own musical aspirations. I found the mindset of the younger generation of characters (meaning Penelope, Charlotte, and so forth) to be quite interesting: these young people who grew up during the war and can hardly imagine a world without it, resulting in a somewhat skewed perspective that is attempting to right itself. Items like a new department store dress are incredibly precious and wonderful, which might seem trite, are actually poignant and lovely in a story that isn't beating you over the head with themes of poverty or the Depression.

The characters are charming, though perhaps too many crucial encounters depend on chance. While I found the general plot to be a bit predictable (once all the main players are accounted for, as a few people are introduced a bit late), I was not disappointed a bit. Charlotte and Penelope are very different kinds of girls, though their friendship (despite its odd origin) is believable as they both find something fascinating about the other. It's also pleasant to see a post-war friendship depicted, even in young people, where one of them doesn't do something terrible to the other, as I feel is so often the case in books or films about this period. Someone always seems to be stealing a boyfriend or telling a lie that results in painful loss... it was refreshing to not have such out-of-place drama here, and instead, we're simply dealing with relationships between people. And Rice is certainly more concerned with those relationships, often at the cost of setting descriptions. I should have liked to hear more about London at the time, but then, she has invested all her location description energy in Magna. This looming and historic estate is lovingly presented, evoking both its majesty and decay. The idea of a poor family living in an English estate is not a new concept, nor is the fact that it is such an albatross around the neck of the Wallace family, but Rice is compelling in her portrait of the family's complicated relationship with such a home.

Ultimately, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a very charming novel with some minor flaws that can be easily forgiven. This would be a perfect novel for an afternoon where you might find yourself house-bound due to inclement weather (and be sure to have a cup of tea handy). I'm quite grateful to my roommate for introducing me to Eva Rice and even if there's only one copy of the novel in our apartment, at least I know it's one we're both pleased to see on the shelf.

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