Book Reviews, Contemporary Fiction, Editor's Picks, Historical Fiction

The London House: A Novel, by Katherine Reay — A Review  

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

Tour Participants

The London House: A Novel, by Katherine Reay

Harper Muse (November 2, 2021)

Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (368) pages

ISBN: 978-0785290209

AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORY | BOOKSHOP | GOODREADS | BOOKBUB

We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose.com is an Amazon.com affiliate. We receive a modest remuneration when readers use our links and make a purchase.

Cover image courtesy of Harper Muse © 2021; text Tracy Hickman © 2021, Austenprose.com

10 thoughts on “The London House: A Novel, by Katherine Reay — A Review  ”

  1. This is a little bit of a departure from what Reay usually writes, or at least what I’ve been exposed to. But, I love her writing and although this time period is not my go-to reading genre, since I have read another of her contemporaries and loved it, I know I’ll enjoy this new one. The premise sounds exciting and heart breaking. I’m so glad I read the blog today. I might not have been aware of her new book otherwise. Thank you Tracy. And all the best luck to Katherine on the launch of her new book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michelle, I’m glad you read the blog too! :-) This was my first Katherine Reay novel, so I didn’t have any idea of her previous books to compare this one with. I’ll be interested to know what you think. I thought her use of letters and journals for the historical narrative paired excellently with the contemporary story.

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      1. The contemporary of Reay’s I was referring to and loved, is ‘Dear Mr. Knightley.’ It’s loosely based on an old work called Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster published in 1912, later made into a movie with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron made in 1955. Both are good, but the movie is very very Hollywoodized.

        Dear Mr. Knightley is so good, about an orphaned college student struggling financially, who miraculously in her mind, is offered a place to stay rent free and with a stipend so that she can concentrate on her school work. One of the requisites of her situation is to write one letter a month to a man she’s never met, but wants to know how she is doing with her school work and anything she needs help with. They are not intended to meet. Her school work doesn’t come easy she has to work at it. The people she meets through her part time job make a big impact on her. The people she is staying with are loving generous family folks, but given that she’s had a tough life she doesn’t know how to accept their generosity. And over the course of her remaining years at school she learns more than just that she can get from books. Sounds somewhat creepy if you look at it through jaded eyes, but it’s not. It also sounds predictable, which it is and isn’t. I highly recommend it.

        Reay writes some Austen fan fiction and even though the title of DMK reminds you of Emma, a few names is all you really can relate to that book. But speaking of Austen fan fiction (and I have no idea how you feel about such,) there is another fan fiction story that is based on Daddy Long Legs too, and that is ‘Dear Nameless Stranger: A Pride and Prejudice Variation,’ by Jeannie Peneaux, which I loved.

        Goodness I really went off subject. I’ve got The London House on the top of my wish list and I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks again for the great review.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Michelle, I appreciate you taking the time to share more about Reay’s previous contemporary novels. With thousands of books and authors to choose from, I always enjoy learning what other readers have discovered about an author or work. My wish list is impossibly long, but I think I’ll add Daddy Long Legs and Dear Mr. Knightley to it.

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    1. Katie, it is! There were so many aspects of the novel that I enjoyed. It was a challenge to distill my thoughts down to a manageable size for the review but not lose the sense of how rich the reading experience was.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read her past books and enjoyed them, but sounds like she stepped up her game for this latest. Definitely one I will read. Great review, Tracy!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This book sounds like a perfect read going into December! I just love historical fiction and books set in the past help me uncover and make sense of my life as well! Thank you for sharing this insightful review! And wow what a gorgeous blog you have Tracy 💕😍 I’m obsessed with all things Austen! 📚 Excited to read your future updates! -Helena ☀️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Helena! It’s a pleasure to write reviews for Laurel Ann’s gorgeous and entertaining blog. I’m so glad you stopped by!

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