published 2005, set in the mid-1950s
[Penelope is attending a ball in a large private house in London]
She was dressed in an unflattering off-white crinoline, a heat rash creeping over her plump shoulders… ‘Penelope! What are you doing here?’ she yelled, speaking aloud what I had been wondering about her. ‘You look different . It’s your hair, isn’t it?’ I nodded, my heart sinking with shame. Why should the only person I knew at this gathering be Hope Allen? She glanced around and her eyes lit upon Charlotte, deep in chatter with the Wentworth twins.
‘Heavens! Don’t look now , but that’s Charlotte Ferris and the Wentworth girls over there,’ she hissed, swinging her back to them, ‘I read something about Charlotte in the Standard last month. They said she was the only girl in London who can wear Dior, identify a great claret and talk to the Teds,’ she added in one of those whispers that comes out louder than a normal voice. I wanted the polished floors of the saloon to swallow me whole. And I had my doubts about the Standard. The only thing I had ever heard Charlotte say when consuming wine was ‘Yum’.
observations: I recently did a list of ‘Books like I Capture the Castle’ – I defined them as books about ‘Young women growing up in amusing circumstances, and how they achieve what they want in life’ – ICTC being the very best of these. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets was recommended by Sam Eades, publicist at Pan Macmillan and the person who triggered my list, so of course I had to read it.
It’s a fun read, and very much falls within my category (it mentions Constant Nymph, one of my list): Penelope lives in a crumbling mansion with her family, she makes friends with the Charlotte mentioned above, they have adventures together while looking for love and a purpose in life. The 1950s setting is nicely done: there are Teddy boys, and the girls are big fans of pop singer Johnny Ray, and are slowly becoming aware of Elvis Presley.
I liked the simplicity of the book: there is no real jeopardy, it’s obvious there’s going to be a happy ending, and it’s obvious who with, and almost everyone in it is good-hearted. The first meeting between Charlotte and Penelope is unconvincingly contrived, but in that regard prepares you for the completely hopeless secret connection between their families which is (un-tensely) kept till near the end.
There was a problem with the derelict mansion where Penelope and her family live: it had been in her family for hundreds of years, and her father had died leaving behind her mother, herself and her brother. It would seem obvious (given the time and situation) that her brother would inherit the estate, not her mother, but this is never mentioned, never arises: that whole section of the plot didn’t really make sense, and didn’t seem realistic.
Also, After Eights did not exist at the time, so Penelope could not have been eating them. And a couple of times Ms Rice seems to have changed something in the plot and not followed through – times and clothes aren’t always right.
But that’s just me being picky. This is a nice book, a good Sunday afternoon comfort read if that is what you are after, and certainly should be on my list of books like ICTC.
The big picture shows a debutante ball in 1959.
The two young debs in the other picture are – wait for it – Vanessa Redgrave and Lady Antonia Fraser. Those were the days. [Antonia Fraser's creation, Jemima Shore, was one of our top female detectives in yesterday's list, and her book Oxford Blood is on the blog here.]