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Books About Letters: "The London House"
Kicking off our 2022 "Books About Letters" series we have the World War II historical fiction new release "The London House" by Katherine Reay (2021, Harper Muse).
Reay's "London House" opens in modern-day Boston, where our protagtonist Caroline is approached by her former best friend Mat. Mat, whilst moonlighting as a genealogist has discovered an interesting story...in which Caroline's long dead great aunt plays a role. Did Aunt Caro really run off in 1941 with her Nazi lover? Will the Payne family ever shake the dark cloud of family secrets both then and now?
Fundamentally we have to ask ourselves one question with every installment of the Books About Letters series: Is this a book about letters?
Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner.
While not entirely epistolary, this otherwise hefty story -- of loss, love, family, pressure, etc. -- is more supported rather than driven by its letter elements. "The London House" uses letters -- and diary entries, for a bit of context -- to its strength. It does fall prey to a bit of the "over exposition" that I've remarked before can detract from an experience, but with a slight twist of narrative purpose towards the last 25% of the book Reay gives us an explanation and therefore excused my biggest concerns. The novel lost a little luster for me with the diary entries but hey, good news...this isn't a "Book about Suspiciously Detailed Diary Entries" review! So I enthusiastically and wholeheartedly encourage you to pick up this read.
"The London House" is Reay's first historical fiction foray. In the interest of full disclosure I have a soft spot for Reay after immensely enjoying her "homey" Winsome Series ("The Printed Letter Bookshop" and "Of Literature and Lattes") so I snapped up "The London House" while it was a Kindle deal and was surprised to find I already owned it when I went to purchase it earlier this month! I love when that happens. Historical fiction is a hard genre for a lot of reasons. There's not just the texture of the craft itself to consider -- telling a good story -- but the layers and layers of context and finally the weaving together of often times several threads. Knowing Reay had pulled that off in the Winsome series I jumped into "The London House" with two feet. Slight spoilers ahead!
Caroline is almost thirty and struggling. After a traumatic event left a hole in the Payne family twenty years earlier, Caroline -- the youngest -- is left with the pieces. We meet Caroline as she's facing her father's acquiescence to his cancer diagnosis, an absent mother, and asking herself the all important: What am I doing with my life? question. There's a lot there already and Reay then throws into the mix more and more -- in the Payne sisters Margaret and Caroline, the Schiaparelli fashion house, the British Secret Service in World War II -- is your head spinning? It's okay if it is! But somehow, and I credit Reay's lengthy experience as a writer, it all lands. This is one of the finest woven historical fiction novels I've yet to encounter. Longtime fans of the genre will enjoy the story and structure, while new readers would be lucky to start their libraries with this gem.
Try a snippet of the audiobook, here!
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Do you have a book in mind about letters you think I should read and review for "Books About Letters"? Let me know! Send me an email at email@example.com.