Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

She stood at a crossroads, half-aware that her choice would send her down a path from which there could be no turning back. But instead of two choices, she saw only one—because it was all she really wanted to see… 

Current day, Oxford, England. Young American scholar Kendra Van Zant, eager to pursue her vision of a perfect life, interviews Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets about the war that she has kept for decades...beginning with who she really is. What Kendra receives from Isabel is both a gift and a burden--one that will test her convictions and her heart.

1940s, England. As Hitler wages an unprecedented war against London’s civilian population, one million children are evacuated to foster homes in the rural countryside. But even as fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, Emmy’s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia’s profound need for her sister’s presence. Acting at cross purposes just as the Luftwaffe rains down its terrible destruction, the sisters are cruelly separated, and their lives are transformed…


What Did I Think About The Story?

Susan Meissner has become an author I love to read for her ability to weave together storylines set in the past and the present, twisting and turning them around each other and finally showing how the past actions have impacted the present. She does not disappoint with Secrets of a Charmed Life, a stunner that plops the reader in the heart of the utter horrors that occurred during the Blitz on London and showcases how decisions made out of longing, fear and guilt can have dire and unexpected consequences.

The present storyline with Kendra Van Zant, a history major hoping the essay she plans to write about Isabel McFarland's experiences during World War II will be selected by her professor for publication in a newspaper, serves to push the narrative back into the past and to slowly but surely bring all the facts and mysteries together until the reader is able to piece together what really happened. These portions of the story were much shorter and farther apart than those dealing with the past but were quite compelling, especially seeing Isabel celebrating her 93rd birthday and finally being able to discuss her rather secretive past for the first time in order to give voice to those who no longer can (and some who never could). Ending the story in the present left me satisfied if saddened by all that had occurred, but also with that sense of release and relief that, in the end, all came out into the light. With all this being said, however, the true gem of Secrets of a Charmed Life are the portions dealing with Emmy and Julia Downtree and their unbelievable experiences during World War II.

I could not help but ache for Emmy, a 15 year old at the start of her story, caught between wanting to make her indifferent and slightly cold mother proud and wanting to break away from a home that is far from happy and go after her dreams of becoming a designer of bridal gowns. Sketching gowns has served as a sort of balm for her unsatisfactory life and given her a glimpse of a normal life that she has never had. Her tense relationship with her mother topped with  the pressure and responsibility placed on her shoulders to take care of her  younger sister, Julia, pushes her to make rash decisions that will have unbelievable consequences that follow her like a shadow the rest of her life.

Mixed in with Emily's story are journal entries from Julia, entries that perfectly show how trauma and war can so completely shape a life into something filled with guilt, fear and grief that paralyzes a person emotionally and makes it hard to move on from what they experienced as well as a need to control whatever parts of life they can after having so little control over life as it broke apart around them. I found Julia's inner turmoil and struggle to be simply heartbreaking but so vital to give the reader the true experience of someone who had gone through what Julia and Emmy went through.

London itself as well as its citizens play a huge part in this story as well. The depictions of London before and after the Blitz are absolutely consuming and the realistically gruesome descriptions of the carnage and destruction is heart stopping. The abject fear and eventual PTSD of the people is fascinating and horrifying at the same time and I felt completely drawn in to all they experienced until I felt like I was slightly in shock myself.

Dealing with topics I haven't read much about before - the evacuation of London's children during the war and the emotional toll this took on England's population, the social and moral stringencies of the time, the complete decimation of London during the Blitz - I was thoroughly engrossed in Secrets of a Charmed Life from the very beginning until the last page. It is a remarkable story of survival and learning to forgive not only others but yourself for mistakes made as well as learning to let the past go in order to have a future. A must read for anyone who reads historical fiction!

What Did I Think About the Cover?

Absolutely beautiful! While having the woman on the cover wear a wedding dress or having her holding a polka dot umbrella (something else that plays an important part in the story) would have maybe fit better into the story I love the green, gold and red pops of color.

My Rating: 5.0/5.0

I received a copy of Secrets of a Charmed Life from the author in exchange for an honest review. Thank you  Susan!!!

About the Author

Susan Meissner is the multi-published author of seventeen books, including A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten Women’s Fiction titles for 2014, and The Shape of Mercy, named one of the 100 Best Novels in 2008 by Publishers Weekly. She is also a speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. She and her husband make their home in Southern California.



  1. My review of this book will be out next week. I was really interested in reading about the evacuation of the London children as well. I did not know much about that at all!

    1. I didn't either Meg!!! I am so looking forward to reading your review! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Replies
    1. Yay, thanks for stopping by Carol! I'm excited to see what you think when you read it!

  3. This book had me at "1940's England" and "History Major." The story sounds a little heavier than I anticipated, but that isn't always a bad thing! While I get sick to my core when I read about the destruction caused during the WW2 blitzes, I'm really interested in how the population felt/handled/even LIVED through these events. How does daily life continue around something so scary and catastrophic, you know? I'm adding this to my Goodreads TBR list. Thanks for the great review!

    1. The same thing happened to me, Regina, I was pulled in when I read the synopsis and saw it took place in 1940's England during the blitz! While it is heavy in places the history is just so saturated it would need to be to make it feel real...and knowing that you like stories that really draw you in to how the population felt and lived through the events I think you would love it. Thanks for stopping by and be sure to go over to my Q & A post and leave a comment to enter to win a copy of the book!

  4. I really enjoy the parallel story line books that go back and forth slowly revealing the story.