The Bookseller's Secret
The worldwide fascination inspired by the six Mitford sisters continues apace, as might that inspired by any family which managed to spawn an ardent communist activist journalist whose investigation of the funeral industry made history, an anti-communist internationally famous novelist, two Hitler-loving fascists (one quite literally so), a country girl, and the Duchess of Devonshire all in a single generation.
Michelle Gable’s chosen point of focus is the novelist of the family, Nancy. While the prose contained within The Bookseller’s Secret sparkles and Gable’s work is enjoyable, the choice to add a modern narrative distracts, and this fictionalization of Nancy’s life takes us far away from the facts.
The Bookseller’s Secret finds Nancy in 1942, where we glimpse her at a crossroads; recovering from her third miscarriage (the result of an affair with a pilot) which will ultimately result in a hysterectomy. Dealing with the weight of the war, her sister’s never-ending scandals and her husband, Peter Rodd’s constant philandering and distance, she’s at a loose end. With her most recent novel having bombed – and the continued success of her close friend/literary rival Evelyn Waugh, a fellow Bright Young Thing, she decides to take control of her life by giving up writing entirely. Settled in the English ountryside to avoid German bombing raids, she takes up work at the Heywood Hill bookshop, which gives her life direction and purpose and fills in a huge financial hole (her allowance has been reduced due to the war). Things get brighter – she forms a literary salon and finds herself genuinely enjoying her job. But the brightest spot in her life occurs when a man enters the shop and asks her to tell his story, which leads Nancy to a joyful affair with a man she calls ‘The Colonel’ – who inspires her to try writing again.
In 2022, Mitford sisters’ fan Katie Cabot is a successful American author with a lousy family life who’s come to London to try to dodge her writer’s block. While attempting to relax and recharge her creative juices (and falling in love with handsome Brit Simon) she stumbles upon Heywood Hills and learns of the possibility of the existence of a secret autobiographical manuscript by Nancy Mitford – possibly it’s hidden somewhere within the shop. While she hopes that this search will provide her with the fresh start she needs, she wonders if, Felix, the shop’s proprietor, knows more than he’s letting on. Since he carries a secret connection to Nancy, Katie is more right than she thinks.
Gable does capture one thing about Nancy accurately; her wit, which can sometimes border on bitchiness and nastiness here,is quite fitting and very Mitfordesque. But The Bookseller’s Secret severely romanticizes Nancy’s relationship with Colonel Gaston Palewski. While their union lasted decades, he provided the inspiration for several of her novel’s heroes and he was the driving inspiration behind her taking up the pen again, he cheated on her constantly and flagrantly, including with her friends, which broke her heart. One has to ignore this fact to enjoy The Bookseller’s Secret. And the fact that, in real life, he ultimately threw her over for a younger, richer woman makes it very difficult to invest in this romance. Most contemporary biographers, in fact, agree that he didn’t feel as deeply for her as she did him.
While Gable alternates artfully between the 1940s and the present day, Katie never feels unique enough to present much of an interesting counterpoint to Nancy; their lives generally run parallel, though Katie has a worse relationship with her mother. In fact, she seems to repeat a number of Nancy’s mistakes. I would rather the differences between them had been much more distinct.
As to the manuscript mystery, it’s just suspenseful enough to keep those pages turning, and it does go somewhere unexpected. But this is a cozy mystery, so don’t expect a lot of blood and guts.
The Bookseller’s Secret isn’t my favorite Mitford Sister-related mystery (yes, this is a literary subset – see The Mitford Murders series for that), it’s still passable enough for a C.