Thanks to Austenprose PR for an ARC of The London House! Read on for a review of this dual timeline novel that jumps between World War II and the present.
Uncovering a dark family secret sends one woman through the history of Britain’s World War II spy network and glamorous 1930s Paris to save her family’s reputation.
Caroline Payne thinks it’s just another day of work until she receives a call from Mat Hammond, an old college friend and historian. But pleasantries are cut short. Mat has uncovered a scandalous secret kept buried for decades: In World War II, Caroline’s British great-aunt betrayed family and country to marry her German lover.
Determined to find answers and save her family’s reputation, Caroline flies to her family’s ancestral home in London. She and Mat discover diaries and letters that reveal her grandmother and great-aunt were known as the “Waite sisters.” Popular and witty, they came of age during the interwar years, a time of peace and luxury filled with dances, jazz clubs, and romance. The buoyant tone of the correspondence soon yields to sadder revelations as the sisters grow apart, and one leaves home for the glittering fashion scene of Paris, despite rumblings of a coming world war.
Each letter brings more questions. Was Caroline’s great-aunt actually a traitor and Nazi collaborator, or is there a more complex truth buried in the past? Together, Caroline and Mat uncover stories of spies and secrets, love and heartbreak, and the events of one fateful evening in 1941 that changed everything.
In this rich historical novel from award-winning author Katherine Reay, a young woman is tasked with writing the next chapter of her family’s story. But Caroline must choose whether to embrace a love of her own and proceed with caution if her family’s decades-old wounds are to heal without tearing them even further apart.
First of all, I give Katherine Reay and any other authors who dive into the “family secrets about World War II” genre credit for publishing stories in an already crowded field. With the fashion angle incorporating Elsa Schiaparelli and plenty of meticulous research, this book is a unique take on a common theme, and fans of WWII historical fiction will appreciate the time Reay has clearly spent getting the particulars of the time just right.
The book also asks some of the more significant questions about the long-term effects of the war, by showing how the betrayal Caroline’s family felt her great-aunt had committed influenced them up to the present day. We see this especially in the interactions between Caroline, Mat, and her father, with Caroline and her father representing a more closed-off and cautious approach to the family secret. This emotional backstory also lends resonance to Caroline’s search for documents relating to her great-aunt. The reader gets the sense that Caroline is looking not just to solve a mystery but also to absolve herself and previous generations of the burdens they have carried for so many years.
Where I struggled with this novel was in feeling like the characters were either not fleshed out enough to be believable or when situations presented themselves in ways that felt unrealistic. The book has several narrative threads competing for space: there are the actions of Caroline’s great-aunt, the life her great-aunt and Caroline’s grandmother lived as the “Waite sisters” in pre-WWII Paris, and the present tragedies and struggles of Caroline, her father, and the rest of their family. Each of these was a complicated story in its own right and, when thrown together with the plot device of Mat and his research, made it feel like each section of the story didn’t quite get the attention it deserved.
However, the historical details, settings in London and Paris, and letters and documents used as part of the book will still have strong appeal to fans of historical fiction based in this era. If you’re looking for a solid family story that combines World War II and the present, pick up The London House for a treat!
Katherine Reay is the national bestselling and award-winning author of Dear Mr. Knightley, Lizzy and Jane, The Brontë Plot, A Portrait of Emily Price, The Austen Escape, and The Printed Letter Bookshop. All Katherine’s novels are contemporary stories with a bit of classical flair. Katherine holds a BA and MS from Northwestern University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and is a wife, mother, former marketer, and avid chocolate consumer. After living all across the country and a few stops in Europe, Katherine now happily resides outside Chicago, IL.