It took me a while to get into Susan Meissner's Secrets of a Charmed Life but I honestly don't think it was the book's fault. It was me. Maybe it's because I had too many kids (five, if you're wondering) and found their teenage years something of a challenge, but I have a really hard time reading stories when a teenager is bound and determined to do something stupid. And the first large chunk of the novel is precisely that. Once I got past that part of the story, it drew me in and kept me reading for hours.
Secrets of a Charmed Life is a historical novel, framed by a present-day interview. A well-known artist, now in her nineties, has decided to come clean and share her true identity and her traumatic memories of the Second World War and the bombing of London. She was fifteen at the time, and dreamed both of breaking out of her single mother's orbit to become a fashion designer and of making that same mother proud of her. The Blitz and the forced evacuation of children from London messed up her plans but she was not one to give in easily. She did everything she could to make her dream come true, but instead she reaped a nightmare.
Once I got past the teenage stupidity part, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The theme of the book is the ripple effect of the decisions we make and the forgiveness we should grant ourselves and others for the unintended consequences of our acts. The many decisions, both mundane and momentous, of the characters form a complicated web of events that could have turned out quite differently if even small actions had been changed. It is an interesting and sometimes heart-breaking read, without becoming too implausible or melodramatic. The chaos of war is difficult to exaggerate and it is a key player in this story.
Meissner is rather famous for the quality of her prose, and she does indeed rise above the level one normally expects from commercial fiction. Her characters are reasonably well-rounded and she actively steers her readers away from facile judgments, something I greatly appreciate. Complexity and compassion are key to the story and make it well worth the read.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy through Goodreads First Reads.