When seeing The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets referred to as pastiche, I was wondering when historical fiction actually crosses the line. Was it because Eva Rice did not only write a novel set in the 50s but a novel that sounded very much like some of the books written in the 40s and 50s? I suppose so. I haven’t read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, but it seems obvious that there are similarities. Be it as it may, Eva Rice has written a truly charming book.
The story starts in medias res with our narrator, Penelope, an eighteen year-old girl and aspiring writer, being whisked off in a taxi by Charlotte. Charlotte is Penelope’s age, but more self-assured, more stylish, outspoken, and exuberant. Before this day the two girls have never met, but, as the novel will slowly unfold, there are more connections than they see at first.
Charlotte begs Penelope to come with her to tea at Aunt Clare’s and meet Harry, her cousin. A little later they are sitting in Aunt Clare’s messy sitting room, eating scones, drinking tea and Penelope falls under the charm of these three people. They are all eccentric, speak their mind and either say hilarious or almost outrageous things. While Penelope is rather shy, she starts to swim like a fish in water in this stimulating company. Their first afternoon together marks the beginning of a great story and a wonderful friendship.
While the early chapters introduce us to Charlotte’s world, the following will take us to Penelope’s home and introduce us to her mother and her younger brother and the house they live in – Milton Magna Hall, called Magna by its inhabitants. Penelope and her family live in this huge, medieval house in genteel poverty. Her father died in WWII. Her mother, a stunning beauty, who’s only 35 years old, is prone to sudden crying fits and utterly sensitive to everything. Her brother, Inigo, doesn’t care about anything else but pop music. Like Charlotte and Penelope he loves Johnnie Ray, but as soon as his uncle from America introduces him to a new singer, Elvis Presley, who is still unknown in the UK, he only cares for Elvis. Their house, Magna, is as much a character as the people. I love stories that center on big old houses. Magna is such a house but it never sounded beautiful.It sounded rather dreadful, a monstrosity really, and a trap for those living inside. It certainly was one big, money-sucking machine. Sure, it was grand, with its huge galleries and halls, but since they had no money, it was cold, draughty and damp. The furniture had seen better days. Visitors were impressed, but, as Charlotte remarked, they didn’t have to live there.
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a s much a book about the beginning of pop music, youth culture, the young Brits’ infatuation with everything American, as it is about coming of age, the definite end of an era, and new times. It’s a love story and a story of new beginnings but, more than anything, it’s a story of friendship.
The novel moves between a few distinct places,—Aunt Clare’s sitting room, the huge mansion Magna, and public places like The Ritz, where they party and listen to their favourite music.
Some of the most wonderful episodes show the four young people together, drinking champagne and enjoying each others company. My favourite scene is almost surrealist. It features Penelope and Harry together in the huge large gallery at Magna, lying on their backs, drinking, talking, and watching Harry’s doves – he’s a magician – fly around the room.
Books like these are often bitter-sweet, but this one is more sweet than bitter— in spite of some tragedy towards the end—because there are so many opportunities and hope waiting for the characters.
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a smart, charming, exuberant book, filled with witty, endearing and eccentric characters, whose sharp insights, clever repartee, and uncrushable optimism are a delight to follow. If you need some intelligent cheering up—this is the book for you.