Secrets of Nanreath Hall
For the longest time, Susanna Kearsley, Lauren Willig and Susan Meissner were the only authors I regularly encountered who wrote dual timeline novels. However, they seem to be everywhere all of a sudden. I love this device, so I’m certainly not complaining. In fact, I was quite eager to read Secrets of Nanreath Hall, with its World War I and World War II storylines connecting a mother and daughter. Unfortunately, the execution in this book ended up feeling disjointed and the storylines just didn’t live up to their promise.
In the days leading up to WWI, young Kitty Trenowyth decides she is more suited to art school than to life as a proper debutante and wife. She feels the weight of family expectations and traditional roles closing in on her – until the day a well-regarded artist comes to Nanreath Hall to paint her portrait. The artist brings with him his assistant, Simon Halliday, and that meeting changes the course of Kitty’s life forever. She decides to follow her heart, a choice that separates her from her family and sweeps her into the more bohemian circles of London just as war looms on the horizon.
Years later, Kitty’s daughter, Anna Trenowyth, faces a crossroads of her own. She lost her mother at an early age, and was raised by family friends she regards as her own dearly loved parents. In the early days of World War II, Anna is serving in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), providing field nursing services. After surviving a traumatic evacuation at Dunkirk, the newly recovered Anna finds herself posted to Nanreath Hall to work in the hospital which has taken over the house. Though she hungers to learn more about her mother’s family, Anna also feels ill at ease taking up a place among the relations who rejected Kitty.
However, Anna does as told and reports to her duty station. What she finds there is a wealth of family secrets, buried memories and all manner of mixed emotions. Along the way, we also see Anna discover new strengths within herself as she learns more about who she is and starts to fall in love. These parts of the story were all big positives for me. I liked Anna as a character, the hopefulness of her story appealed to me, and I found myself intrigued by the details of what life in England was like during the war. Nanreath Hall in the 1940s comes to life in a way that Nanreath in the 1910s didn’t quite manage, and the details of Anna’s job and the people she encounters kept me intrigued.
As I read through the book, I felt much more attached to Anna and her story than to Kitty. Anna doesn’t always get things right, but she grows a lot over the course of the novel and she seems to learn from her experiences. For some reason, Kitty just feels more distant to the reader and it’s harder to get inside her head. And since she seems to be the queen of decisions both impulsive and immature, it can also be difficult to sympathize with some of the fixes she falls into throughout the earlier narrative in this novel.
While I did find portions of both narratives, particularly the World War II story, very interesting, some of the decisions the author made with regard to narrative structure made this a duller read than it otherwise could have been. The main issue is that every chapter of the book alternates between Kitty and Anna, no matter what is happening or where the points of tension in their stories may be. As a result, one often feels ripped out of important action in one narrative only to get dropped into something more mundane in the other. It would have helped the pacing a bit to switch up the give and take between the two narratives rather than doggedly going back and forth between one and the other at set intervals as happened here.
If you really like dual timeline stories, this one has some aspects that will likely appeal. However, the storytelling lacks a certain polish and too much of the characters’ internal lives and motivations are glossed over for me to entirely love it. Secrets of Naneath Hall is a little better than average, but not strong enough for me to recommend.