From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
I have been fascinated with history since I was a child. Learning about people and events from the past has helped me better understand my own life and the world around me. While there can be a temptation to look back at a period of history and think that issues were simpler or clearer, for the people living those events there was no 20/20 hindsight, only uncertainty and struggle. For this reason, I was curious to explore the lives, past and present, touched by Katherine Reay’s The London House. Because I enjoy dual-timeline historical fiction and epistolary narratives, this latest work by an author of literary-themed contemporary novels went to the top of my reading list.
In present day Boston, Caroline Payne is contacted by a former college friend, Mat Hammond, who is preparing to publish an article about her great-aunt Caroline (Caro) Waite’s clandestine activities and subsequent betrayal of her country, defecting with her German lover and disappearing in the chaos of war. Caroline is broadsided by Mat’s news—her family told her that her great-aunt died in childhood. Visiting her father, Caroline learns that Mat is telling the truth and her family has been living under the shadow of Caroline’s betrayal for eighty years. Three generations have suffered under this shame, compounded by the inevitable losses and disappointments of life. Unfortunately, part of Caroline’s emotional inheritance is a pattern of burying hurt, hiding feelings, closing off from people, and denying the existence of painful truths.
But the shock of Mat’s research jolts Caroline into remembering a childhood visit to London and a trunkful of letters in the attic of the family’s house in Belgravia. She has one week before Mat will publish the article and she is determined to learn about her great-aunt and namesake. Strictly against her father’s wishes, but with encouragement from her brother Jason who believes that finding the truth can help their family, Caroline heads to London where her mother has lived since her parents’ divorce.
As she reads through journals and letters written in the years leading up to war, Caroline learns about twin sisters Caro (her great-aunt) and Margaret (her grandmother)—the Waite sisters— alive with youthful energy in the heady atmosphere of interwar England, as experienced by the wealthy class that they belong to. The aristocratic family is well-connected: prime ministers and other political figures dine regularly with the Waites. While Caro and Margaret have no material wants, they, like all teenagers, must discover their own paths to adult independence, even as they try to reconcile family responsibilities and expectations. A childhood promise to never keep secrets from one another is broken as they grow older, but as Caroline learns in reading their letters and journals, the break was born not of malice but misunderstandings and missed opportunities for connection.
As Caroline pours over the contents of the trunk in the old family house in London, she also begins to see her own life in a different perspective. When she uncovers material that changes the narrative of Mat’s proposed article, she convinces him to join her in London to follow the research trail. While she can tell herself that Mat’s academic connections and experience with research methods and document archives are the reason she’s asking for his help, she’s beginning to realize that there is an underlying emotional connection between them. With her own family divided over her search, is Caroline ready to discard a safe but numbing blanket of half-truths for a chance at something real? She’ll need to uncover the truth about her Aunt Caro to find out.
From start to finish, I thoroughly enjoyed The London House. My reading journey paralleled Caroline’s search for answers, as I started out with quick impressions of the characters, both contemporary and historical, but was left with many unknowns and questions. As Ms. Reay spun out her story, I became increasingly invested in the complexity and realism of the relationships, the vivid descriptions of places and people such as pre-war Paris and the fashion house of Elsa Schiaparelli, and the mystery surrounding Caro’s disappearance in 1941. I did not notice any historical missteps or anachronisms in the novel—an indication of thorough research and thoughtful incorporation of detail that propels the narrative and grounds the action of the characters. In addition to elements, The London House weaves a powerfully hopeful message into its narrative. From Caro’s letters to Margaret:
“I find solace tonight in remembering everything between us, every story we’ve shared and every tidbit of our letters. They tell our story and, while I’m feeling lost and alone, they lead me to you. Do the same when you need me. Please? Pull out our letters and find me in each shared story and in each detail. It’s all there.” (268)
And from Caroline’s reflections on her family:
“If what had started a domino chain of pain, retreat, and dysfunction could somehow be reversed or reimagined, then couldn’t a domino chain of hope replace and even heal it? That’s how high I had aimed…It meant my dream wasn’t impossible. If our perceptions changed our reality, our minds could also adapt to something new…I could stop being a prisoner of a past I hadn’t understood because I no longer imagined myself to be one.” (301)
The London House is expertly crafted. Katherine Reay’s skill and confidence in storytelling is evident in her handling of the emotional weight of the narrative and dual-timeline format incorporating letters, journals, emails, and text messages in the epistolary sections of the novel. The London House ticked every historical fiction box for me, delivering a richly satisfying experience that I think will resonate with many readers.
5 out of 5 Stars
- The London House: A Novel, by Katherine Reay
- Harper Muse (November 2, 2021)
- Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (368) pages
- ISBN: 978-0785290209
- Genre: Historical Fiction, Inspirational Fiction
We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Harper Muse © 2021; text Tracy Hickman © 2021, austenprose.com.