Hats, gloves and gorgeous frocks are an essential element in Eva Rice's The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. One afternoon, eighteen-year-old Penelope Wallace finds herself mesmerized by sophisticated city-girl Charlotte Ferris while stepping off a bus stop into a London taxi. Charlotte ends up inviting Penelope home for tea at her Kensington Court townhouse, where she meets Aunt Clare and Charlotte's brother Harry. Apparently, Harry is besotted with the lovely and sophisticated Marina Hamilton, of Dorset House, "newly rich and seething with youth."
Times are tough for Penelope: her medieval ancestral home Magna is crumbling down around her, and neither Penelope
nor Inigo, her fiercely opinionated younger brother, nor Talitha, her glamorous mother, has the resources to fix it. Talitha, whose "star quality is her greatest gift," spends her most of her time pining for her husband who was killed in the War.
Innocent, full of youthful idealism, and obsessed with love for American singer Johnny Ray, Penelope doesn't realize that accepting tea with Charlotte sets her life off the familiar tracks that she has traveled so far. She begins to encourage Charlotte's friendship,
inviting her and Harry for a weekend at Magna.
Of course, Penelope is reluctant to tell her mother of her newfound friends; Talitha would be absolutely "horrified at being seen dead at a bus stop, and fiercely disapproves of accepting tea invitations." However, despite her mother's admonishments, Charlotte introduces Penelope to London's swinging society of models, actors, royalty and beauty. She becomes overwhelmed with the thought of going to
jazz cafes, smoking glamorous cigarettes and drinking espressos.
Penelope is caught up in the influence of American pop culture that is steadily gathering momentum in Britain. For her part, Talitha spurns this culture, appalled by her children's willingness to embrace a country that she considers to be so deeply vulgar. Penelope and Inigo become caught up in a widening generational war, caught between the need to do exactly as their mother wishes and the desperate urge to break away from her.
Author Eva Rice has a firm grasp of Penelope as she navigates the world of high society with all her flaws, fears, insecurities, and obsession with all things shiny and new. She
is undeniably an innocent but also intent to use equal parts mind and heart to find her way in life. Charlotte is also nicely portrayed; she knows the limitations of her society and is
representative of that rare type of girl who has the luxury of picking and choosing exactly who they remember and forget.
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is about a newly rejuvenated post-war England eager to adopt the new and glamorous. Rationing is a thing of the past, with shops stocking products from all over the world. Even Talitha now shops, heavily influenced by the "flounce of Parisian culture and five-inch heals. The novel is heavy on nostalgia, the soft romance of ages past, with Rice certainly capturing the ebb and flow of life in the 1950s. The author is also adept at mixing up the common and poor with the rich and the vulgar and excels in presenting the lives of girls with names like "Katherine Leigh-Jones and Alicia Davidson-Fornby."
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is certainly an accomplished debut from Eva Rice, but ultimately the novel comes across as rather shapeless. There
is a blandness to this story, and while the prose is often lyrical, the story is somewhat awash in the familiar and the clichéd. The novel is certainly a good expose on finding fulfillment in 1950s England, but it
is as though London's alluring young society with which Penelope becomes so besotted isn't that enthralling and daring after all.