Book Description: From the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Distant Hours, The Forgotten Garden, and The House at Riverton, a spellbinding new novel filled with mystery, thievery, murder, and enduring love.
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. The Secret Keeper explores longings and dreams and the unexpected consequences they sometimes bring. It is an unforgettable story of lovers and friends, deception and passion that is told—in Morton’s signature style—against a backdrop of events that changed the world.
Kate Morton’s fourth novel is much like her first three. Someone in the present is spurred to investigate a family mystery. The novel jumps back and forth in time between past and present, revealing the story in dribs and drabs until the big twisty reveal at the end. The plot is always intricate, the clues brilliant, the ending satisfying. Morton is a wonderful storyteller and she has mastered telling stories in this particular style. If you loved Kate Morton’s other books, chances are you will love The Secret Keeper (★★★).
However. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) Unlike Morton’s other novels, she centers The Secret Keeper on a character that most readers will hate. Dorothy Smitham is narcissistic, vain and delusional. I hated her almost from the word “go” and, if it wasn’t for my love of Morton’s writing and my faith in her ability to redeem this character that was, by the 3/4 of the way into the book, damn near irredeemable, I would have stopped reading. After reading 76% of the book, I posted this on Goodreads:
“So far, I hate this book. The main character is reprehensible and the knowledge that she lives to a ripe old age makes me hate her even more. I was 3/4 of the way in (and I can’t believe I kept reading to get there) before Morton started developing a character I could actually root for. I’m on page 366; Morton doesn’t have much time to redeem her characters or the story.”
As a writer, I was compelled to keep reading. I was curious how Morton was going to redeem Dolly. It was going to be one of the biggest character transformations I’d ever read and I was dying to know how she did it. What would happen to Dolly to change her so profoundly?
Of course, the problem was I didn’t know if Dolly had changed that much at all. Dolly, or Dorothy as she was known when she was older, was a blank slate in the present. A dying old woman who spoke in cryptic half sentences. Her children knew her as children know their parents, i.e. through the prism of childhood memory, love and anger. Children, young or old, are the worst judge of their own parents – especially dying parents – because they cannot see them as anything other than a parent. There is too much baggage there for true objectivity.
I figured out the twist too late. When I did, I was torn between relief and irritation. There was nothing transcendental about Morton’s story, characterizations or ending. She ended it in the most conventional way possible. She ended it in a way that, looking back, the reader feels stupid they didn’t suspect it long before it was revealed. Or, if you don’t feel stupid, you should. Anyone that has seen a movie or read a book in the last 100 years should be able to predict that ending. It wasn’t original or even that believable. But, it satisfies the Happy Ending requirement endemic in modern entertainment and will keep Morton’s readers happy for another year until she publishes another novel in the same vein.
Her conventional, easy ending was not the only issue I had with the book. Her present day main character was poorly developed and served as only the instigator to the story that Morton really wanted to tell, that of London during the Blitz in 1941. I wish she had written a straight historical fiction novel in that time, with those characters and jettisoned the time jumps. I suppose that would have lessened the requisite “Ah!” moment the reader has when the twist is revealed. Still, for all the development of the present day characters and their relationships, the book would have been stronger without them.
I suppose this sounds harsh for a three star review. If this had been Morton’s first novel, I would have given her five stars. But, it is her fourth and I expect more. Her style isn’t stale, necessarily, but it also isn’t original. I expect her to continue to churn out three star novels (which will garner four and a half or better ratings on Amazon and Goodreads) to adoring fans for years to come. But, for some of us, anticipation will be muted and expectations will be lowered.