In Katherine Reay’s novel, The London House, Caroline Payne was working through an ordinary day until she received a phone call from an old college friend, Mat. He wanted to meet with her about her aunt, of all people. Caroline had been named for great aunt, the twin sister of her grandmother. But the older Caroline had died of polio when she was a child. What could Mat possibly want to know about her?
Mat was working on an article where he inadvertently uncovered information claiming that Caroline’s great aunt had been a Nazi collaborator who ran off with her German lover. As Caroline refutes Mat’s claim, Mat brings up evidence that looks genuine.
Caroline asks for time to research the issue on her own. She flies to London to the home of her late grandmother, now occupied by her mother. They find letters between the twins and diaries of Caroline’s grandmother, Margaret. As Caroline wades through them, she is taken back to the 40s and the twins’ coming of age in a life of privilege before war hit. But life-threatening illness and family tension separated them. Some of that tension remained to the current day in the distanced relationship Caroline has with her own parents. Will Caroline’s discoveries heal old wounds or make them worse?
I don’t know if this would be classified as a time-slip novel, but with some of the letters and diaries, we’re transported back to the setting and activities of the twins’ earlier days. In that sense, it’s also partly an epistolary novel. Katherine has a note at the end of the book sharing what elements were true or fictional.
I enjoyed the uncovering of clues in the older Caroline’s letters and the dynamics that brought healing to the younger Caroline’s family. Although WWII seems to be the setting of more novels than any other era, I do enjoy them even while I sometimes long for glimpses of other time frames.
It’s funny how certain themes seem to go around at the same time. For instance, I had never heard of the Monuments Men (who recovered art stolen by the Nazis) until the movie made about them a few years ago. But just this year I’ve read a book about them and seen them mentioned in others. Now there seems to be a theme of dressmakers involved in WWII, with The Paris Dressmaker by Kristy Cambron and this one and others. I hadn’t realized this book was going to involve haute couture and dressmaking until I got into it.
All of Katherine’s other books that I have read have been Christian fiction to some degree. I didn’t know that this one was not until I saw a review on Goodreads noting that this book was published under the new Harper Muse imprint and not Christian fiction. That’s not a problem in itself. Christian authors have many reasons for writing stories that aren’t blatantly Christian. Katherine does mention C. S. Lewis’s radio talks of the time which were later transformed into Mere Christianity.
But I was disturbed by a couple of elements in the book. One of the older Caroline’s letters describes her first sexual encounter. Thankfully, it stops before it gets too explicit. But the younger Caroline suspects her grandmother tore the rest of the description out of the letter because she was a “prude.” Then, the older Caroline was employed by Elsa Schiaparelli, a rival to Coco Chanel. She mentions the sexual innuendoes of some of the designer’s work, especially those in collaboration with Salvador Dali—and then proceeds to bring one beyond innuendo and spells out the sexual connotation of it. I could have done without that.
So, I have mixed emotions about the book. The story overall was good, but I was disappointed the sexual elements. Even though they probably would be considered tame by most other modern secular fiction, they were still too much for me.
I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Madeleine Maby, but then also caught the Kindle version on sale and read parts in it as well.