In the prologue to The London House by Katherine Reay, it's the 1940s in Occupied France. A woman named Caro has gone to the House of Schiaparelli to give her Jewish friend money and encourage her to escape the country before it's too late. But, then a dangerous traitor shows up and grabs Caro. He's going to turn her over to the French police, the Milice, who are known to be even more brutal than the Germans.
In present-day Boston, Caroline Payne (great niece of Caro in the prologue) is working when she gets a call from an old college friend, Mat. Now a college instructor working toward tenure, he has developed a side business that he hopes will get him onto tenure track, researching family histories and writing about how history sends ripples through families. He's in Caroline's building and wants to talk to her because her family came up while he was researching a German family whose Nazi ancestor was connected to the disappearance of Great Aunt Caro, whom Caroline is named after and has always been told died at the age of 7 from polio.
Mat has a different story to tell and the documentation to prove it, a letter by a British dignitary who informed her great-grandparents that Caro ran off with her Nazi lover. Mat has already approached her father to tell him that the story will include her family but it's not meant to be incriminating; it's about how the pain of the past reverberates through the generations and how people move on with their lives after tragedy. Caroline's father has threatened him with a lawsuit.
Caroline has a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the idea that her great aunt lived to adulthood. But, once she does, she decides to visit the family's ancestral home in London's Belgravia, where there are letters and diaries that can give her clues. She only has a limited amount of time to get the research done before Mat's article is submitted and she's also on a tight schedule to return to her job.
Did Caroline's great aunt, her grandmother's twin sister, betray the family and her country? Or, is there more to Caro's story? Will Caroline be able to untangle the clues from the past that will lead her toward the truth?
Highly recommended - I loved The London House. The story is a very believable one because some things about WWII simply could not be known till recently and it makes sense that one may have had to know where to find clues — and couldn't necessarily find answers in any official sense. I loved the way Caroline slowly uncovered her great aunt's story, the Nazi lover's (in the process), and in so doing changed the direction of both her friend's article and her family's understanding of their history. Also, there is a touch of romance and it unfolded slowly and believably.
My only problem with this book is an issue a lot of Americans probably won't have. The writing and dialogue by British characters doesn't contain any particular use of Britishisms and lacks a British cadence. So, everyone sounded American to me. I think that's an extremely minor issue because the story swept me up so thoroughly that I didn't really give the dialogue much thought. However, it did eventually jump out at me. I still highly recommend The London House, even if you've been to the UK a bazillion times. It's a good story and I found it nearly impossible to put down.
My thanks to Harper Muse, Katherine Reay, and Laurel Ann of Austenprose for the review copy!
Interesting side note:
Goodreads has some additional description that I found interesting (I opted not to read the publisher's description but saw this when I went to rate the book):
A stand-alone split-time novel
Partially epistolary: the historical storyline is told through letters and journals
"Stand-alone split-time" is a new descriptor for me. I usually call the split-time books a "contemporary historical mix". Also, the fact that much of the book is told through letters and diary entries is crucial, so I'm glad I glimpsed that for the reminder. Now you know. If you're an epistolary fan, you'll undoubtedly enjoy the way this story is told.
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