{all of the secrets and all of the lies}

It’s been a while since I posted because it took me a while to get through this book—I’ve spent the past 2-3 weeks listening to the recording of Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper. This was about 90% due to a free Audible download I acquired, and 10% due to my theory that I’d be able to focus more at the gym with a new recorded book than with the same playlists I’ve been listening to for at least the past four years (I will say that theory had a nearly 85% success rate the one time I tried it). This is the third Kate Morton book I’ve read (including The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours), so I felt enough of an expert to recommend her books as Christmas gifts for not one, but both grandmothers this year! So if you, too, share literary taste with your octogenarian relatives, I suggest you read on.

Like all her other books, TSK revolves around two main stories: the first from the past, relying heavily on orphans, lost lovers, and family secrets; and the second of a modern-day relative/somehow-involved person attempting to unravel the decades-old mystery. This particular book opens on a lazy summer afternoon in 1961, when 16-year-old Laurel witnesses her mother, Dorothy, commit a violent crime. Fifty years later and beside her mother’s deathbed, Laurel begins to make sense of what she saw and explore the trajectories of the past that culminated in that one act of desperation.

The majority of the story is told from three different viewpoints: the adult Laurel, the young Dorothy in war-torn London during the Blitz, and Vivian, Dorothy’s sophisticated and mysterious friend. As Laurel gradually uncovers, Dorothy and her fiancé became involved in a “plan” for their future that went terribly awry, a plan that resulted in deaths and irreparably shattered relationships, a plan with repercussions that reached 20 years into Dorothy’s future as a happily married mother.

As I’ve said, Morton’s books are highly formulaic, but this one had two major differences from the others I’ve read. First of all, I truly hated young Dorothy. I normally find the modern storyline to be the dullest: I’m less than interested in a thirty-something sad sack trying to figure out why she’s always felt her life to be missing something and then finding the answers in the past, etc., etc. Laurel, a 66-year-old Oscar-winning actress, was smart, resourceful, and had a refreshing amount of sass and cynicism about her (of course I identify with the grandmothers’ heroine). Young Dorothy, on the other hand, was revolting. Spoiled, whiny, manipulative, and quite frankly delusional, I found very little to recommend her throughout the entire story. I was far more interested with her fiancé, Jimmy (Morton’s excellent job of painting his carefree handsomeness and shock of brown hair falling into his face certainly did not hurt), and Vivian, who was just prickily enough to draw me in right away to whatever she was hiding.

The second thing that caught me off guard was the ending. No spoilers, but Morton’s MO is to divulge an “ending solution” to the mystery that all characters accept as true, then drop the real ending in a huge twist at the very end. I was practiced enough in this habit to recognize the false resolution as soon as it was revealed, but was equally certain that I knew exactly what the real ending would be. However, I was ultimately outsmarted—the true resolution was one that had never even occurred to me (although, looking back, it really should have).

This Christmas Eve, I’m sitting in my parents’ house in front of the fake gas fire, eating peppermint stick ice cream and watching my mother vacuum under the tree. In literary news, I’m giving my dad a copy of Wolf Hall and the movie A Man for All Seasons (the ultimate history nerd’s double feature!!). I also just finished She’s Come Undone, but since I’m behind on blogging and don’t have anything to read for the rest of my vacation, I’ll save it for next time.

In other words—happy holidays!!

{homo homini lupus}

Today, my virtual book group met to discuss Wolf Hall. As the first woman to win two Man Booker Prizes and the first author of a book and its sequel to both win Bookers, Hilary Mantel is causing quite a lot of buzz in the literary world. As a complete history nerd, this Book One in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy was also a great pick for me. I’ve read quite a few books (fiction and non) on the Tudor reign, and what always fascinates me is how many different perspectives there are on the dichotomy of good and evil. So many characters, so many power struggles, so many conflicting perspectives on right and wrong—which is why there were also so many beheadings. Across the board, though, Thomas Cromwell is almost always a villain, which made Mantel’s focus on him especially fascinating.

One of the major themes we discussed today was the power of narrative and its pervasiveness throughout the novel. Again, Henry VIII’s reign was fraught with discord and feuding factions—the narrative is unclear, unorganized, and open to rewriting. Cromwell himself manipulates others’ narratives throughout the course of the story, attempting to shape the amorphous facts of reality into a cohesive and sensical narrative.

As one friend mentioned, Cromwell seems a true 20th-century man, at times out of his element. He’s a common man motivated by upward mobility, whose personal ethics are sometimes at odds with his governmental role. He takes every opportunity to give others a chance to save themselves from a brutal fate—during the climactic pages when he interviews Thomas More and judges him as treasonous for refusing to swear Henry VIII as the head of the church, Cromwell constantly tries to convince him to just give the king the minimum. He explains that just saying the words will be enough, just signing More’s name—there is no follow-up action required, it doesn’t matter what More actually believes, he can have his fingers crossed for all Cromwell or the king care. He’s unable to understand More’s refusal to do so, a stance which convinces Cromwell that More deserves his fate.

“I have never understood where the line is drawn, between sacrifice and self-slaughter.”

“Christ drew it.”

“You don’t see anything wrong with the comparison?”

Obviously, Cromwell’s attitude is mirrored by the religious and political thrusts of the time. Martin Luther and King Henry, though for conflicting reasons and at odds with each other, are each attempting to redefine the Christian church, to rework the gospel narrative. They seek to take away the immense power of the Church, the emphasis on a need for an interpreter for the common people. As Henry’s chief minister, Cromwell is charged with the task of distributing this message to the English, spreading the Act of Supremacy that More so objects to.

It doesn’t, as some say, make the king head of the church. It states that he is head of the church, and always has been. If people don’t like new ideas, let them have old ones. . . I am all for clarity.

Cromwell’s stance for clarity is certainly a precarious one. While I found the middle of WH slow going at times, it certainly picked up toward the end, and I can’t wait to read the second in the trilogy and Mantel’s newest Booker winner, Bring Up the Bodies.