I’ve failed my third-grade level Language Arts assignment. Three times I have tried and three times I have failed to summarize Kate Morton’s latest novel, The Secret Keeper, in a coherent paragraph. It’s a hard storyline to describe succinctly, because it’s not just a storyline. There are a million storylines going at once with a bajillion characters inhabiting them.
I might be embellishing just a tad. Find Amazon’s description, my thoughts, and read-alikes after the jump.
During a summer party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is happily dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the long road to the farm and watches as her mother speaks to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime. A crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy—her vivacious, loving, nearly perfect mother.
Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress living in London. The family is gathering at Greenacres farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Realizing that this may be her last chance, Laurel searches for answers to the questions that still haunt her from that long-ago day, answers that can only be found in Dorothy’s past.
Dorothy’s story takes the reader from pre–WWII England through the blitz, to the ’60s and beyond. It is the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined.
See, they couldn’t be succinct either.
It might be a lot of story, but each one is a good story well-told, each intersecting and overlapping with one another in surprising and revealing ways. I devoured this book within a couple of days.
Morton excels at intricate plots and big reveals. I realized that for some reason I always remember her prose being more lyrical and lush than it actually is, but I don’t mean that as a criticism. Morton’s style is very straight-forward, evocative without being over-written. Her pacing and way of building suspense keeps you reading at a good clip, desperate for the grand finale and solution to the mystery.
In that last respect the reader is in Laurel’s shoes (and mind) for the duration–we’re solving the mystery along with her, but with the added benefit of getting the backstory through other characters’ eyes and experiences. Morton uses this sort of framing device in every one of her novels, and it works very well. I will say, though, that the historical characters seem much more real and fleshed-out than the present-day ones, much as they did in The Distant Hours and The Forgotten Garden. That’s where the meat of the story is, the real conflicts, problems, and plot.
If you’ve read and enjoyed Morton’s other books, certainly give this one a look. You won’t be disappointed!
Sarah Waters would be a great choice for those who like the suspense, atmosphere, and big twists in Morton’s books. The Night Watch might be a good choice if you want another story set in World War II London. If you prefer the Victorian setting, try Fingersmith or Affinity.
John Harwood’s The Ghost Writer might also be a good choice, for those who like overlapping stories and mystery. I talked about his style and content here, when I discussed his novel The Seance (which would also be a good readalike for Morton’s work!).