The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice was given to me as a Christmas present by my friend Lorna, who'd read and loved it. I passed it on to Our Vicar's Wife, who also loved it, and has passed it on to a lady in our village in Somerset... isn't it great when a recommendation goes along a chain like this? It's only fair that I pass it on to all of you, too.
Please don't let that fact that it was a Richard & Judy Book Club choice put you off. They choose some fine books. And, more importantly, don't be discouraged by the cover, which falls firmly into 'chick lit' territory. Today's sketch shows the importance of distrusting cover images...
Right. Now we can consider the book itself. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is set in the 1950s. Penelope lives in one of those crumbling old mansions only found in literature, and is (of course) the daughter of a beautiful widow, and has a mildly eccentric brother, obsessed with music. She meets Charlotte at a bus stop, and is invited, out of the blue, to visit Charlotte's aunt (not, we must note, the same as Charley's Aunt) who lives in a book-crammed room, and is dictating her own book to Charlotte. Charlotte is the driving force of this novel, though we follow Penelope's viewpoint - in Charlotte, Rice has enfused such an energy, such a good-natured whirl of sophisticated absurdity and capriciousness. She reminded me of Miss Hargreaves, not in sharing character traits, but in her unique energy; in the unwearying delight it is to read about her.
Penelope and Charlotte dash from socialite parties to the aunt's flat to the disintegrating mansion - sharing crushes, aspirations, occasionally squabbling - all with a pace and joy that is contagious. Rice includes a couple of significant plot twists, which is all to the good of the novel's structure, but when she produces characters so brilliant, it scarcely matters what the plot is.
The debts to Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith are there, and cheerfully confessed to in the blurb, but this novel restored my faith in the modern novel. I've read a fair few good modern novels, but all of them were sombre much of the time. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is the first unapologetically amusing and incandescently happy novel I've come across in ages.