Yesterday I walked past a rain-drenched lilac tree and stopped to smell it. The sweet scent took me back (smells will do that) to the spring of my seventeenth year when I spent hours roaming around my hometown drowning in successive waves of sweet springtime florals — lily of the valley, magnolia, lilac — and waiting for my life to start.
Eva Rice has that down. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is an ode to the expectancy of late adolescence, that period of pent-up potential and eagerness, heightened self-awareness, enormous physical appeal and vitality. Lord, it’s no wonder teenagers get into such trouble.
The novel is set in mid-1950s England, a brilliant choice, for Rice makes Penelope Wallace’s world reflect her own unsettled expectant state. London is seething with Teds (those guys in the zoot suits) and fever for the new music. Rationing ends. There are marvelous clothes to be had, but they are novel. A few American characters move through the book like scarlet macaws, exotic and impossible to miss.
Plot? Well, you know what they say, it’s either “a stranger comes to town” or “a man goes on a journey.” In this case, it’s the stranger: Penelope meets Charlotte Ferris and this new friendship shakes up, then ultimately settles her life. Charlotte and Penelope are the kinds of girls who live in big houses and go to debutante parties. Penelope actually lives in an immense medieval monster called Milton Magna, as much of a character as any of the humans.
Given the setting and the concerns, I would have had a hard time resisting this book anyway. But, oh, my lord, the charm! “I met Charlotte in London one afternoon while waiting for a bus. Just look at that sentence! That in itself is the first extraordinary thing…” Eva Rice is one of those writers who takes you by the wrist and draws you into the party, gets you a drink, introduces you to the coolest-looking guy in the room (possibly Harry Delancy, the young magician with mismatched eyes) and checks on you from time to time to make sure you’re having a marvelous time.
This book very strongly reminded me of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a sacred text from my youth. Similar concerns, similar strong first-person narrative, but lots more glamor. I was somewhat concerned that, ultimately, it would be content-free, but Rice has a few tricks up her sleeve (one, I have to say, a little clunky, you’ll know when you reach it). Plot developments at the end not only recast the events, but shuffle the importance of the characters, somehow move the center of the book out of Penelope’s own 18-year-old head into — gosh! The other people in the world! Who had separate existences before she came along, and still do!
There’s so much fabulous writing here, but one scene stands out: Penelope and Charlotte get to hear Johnnie Ray, a matinee-idol singer, perform live at the Palladium. Rice conjures the female bacchanale, a flicker away from hysteria: the screaming, the tears, the fainting, the absolute unreason.
So many lovely nuggets: a man who is killed by a falling bookcase. Nouveaux riches “who had taken the liberty of labeling their art as though we were in a museum.” Oh, and about damage to a dress: “It isn’t ruined. Any good dry cleaner will get ash out of satin.” Got that?