This incredible debut historical novel—in the tradition of Beatriz Williams and Jennifer Robson—tells the fascinating story of a young mother who flees her home on the rocky cliffs of Cornwall and the daughter who finds her way back, seeking answers.
Cornwall, 1940. Back in England after the harrowing evacuation at Dunkirk, WWII Red Cross nurse Anna Trenowyth is shocked to learn her adoptive parents Graham and Prue Handley have been killed in an air raid. She desperately needs their advice as she’s been assigned to the military hospital that has set up camp inside her biological mother’s childhood home—Nanreath Hall. Anna was just six-years-old when her mother, Lady Katherine Trenowyth, died. All she has left are vague memories that tease her with clues she can’t unravel. Anna’s assignment to Nanreath Hall could be the chance for her to finally become acquainted with the family she’s never known—and to unbury the truth and secrets surrounding her past.
Cornwall, 1913. In the luxury of pre-WWI England, Lady Katherine Trenowyth is expected to do nothing more than make a smart marriage and have a respectable life. When Simon Halliday, a bohemian painter, enters her world, Katherine begins to question the future that was so carefully laid out for her. Her choices begin to lead her away from the stability of her home and family toward a wild existence of life, art, and love. But as everything begins to fall apart, Katherine finds herself destitute and alone.
As Anna is drawn into her newfound family’s lives and their tangled loyalties, she discovers herself at the center of old heartbreaks and unbearable tragedies, leaving her to decide if the secrets of the past are too dangerous to unearth…and if the family she’s discovered is one she can keep.
Kitty Trenowyth, the pampered daughter of a wealthy earl, yearns to choose her own future, to explore her artistic talents, to experience more than her sheltered life has so far allowed. When her father commissions an artist to paint her portrait, he brings with him Simon Halliday, a handsome assistant who awakens both physical desire and a desire to prove to herself and her family that she can make it on her own. But life in the real world turns out to be far harder than Kitty ever expected. She valiantly attempts to make the most of it, but with the outbreak of World War One, she suddenly finds herself alone and with child, with nowhere to go.
Twenty-five years later, Kitty's daughter, Anna, is searching for answers. A nurse posted to the Trenowyth family estate at Nanreath Hall, which has been turned into a hospital for soldiers too ill or badly wounded to return to the front, Anna hopes to learn more about the mother she barely remembers and the father she never met. But her arrival is not welcomed by her cold and bitter aunt and her crippled, drunken cousin, who are suspicious of her motivations. And though Anna diligently tends to the wounded, she is nursing wounds of her own, both physical and mental. As the war slogs on, Anna and her newfound family form tenuous bonds under the strain of hardship and suffering, but their descriptions of her parents don't match up with the ideal of them she's carried in her heart. With the help of a dashing airman who refuses to let Anna push him away, she unravels the mystery surrounding her birth, but the truth may be more than she's prepared to handle.
I really enjoyed this book as a whole, but it was Anna and her tale that I was more attached to. Kitty does not seem to be quite as well developed, and I had a harder time connecting to her or feeling that the love between her and Simon was grand enough or deep enough to give up everything for. But I did feel sorry for her when everything (rather predictably) came crashing down around her. I was also expecting the first war to play more of a role in her story, as the second war does in Anna's, but aside from Simon going off to fight, Kitty does not feel the daily effects of the war. Hers is more the story of coming of age and coming to terms with the consequences of choices.
But Anna's story had me hooked from beginning to end, riveted by the depiction of the sacrifices on the British home front, the terror of the blitz, the tending of the convalescent, the developing dynamics of her new family, and her blossoming romance. She is everything I love in a heroine--smart, brave, selfless, compassionate, and achingly vulnerable underneath it all. Through the loss of family and friends and the unspeakable horrors of war, she is determined to keep moving forward and to keep searching for answers. My only complaint is that I would really have liked an epilogue. In war, there is no happily ever after, only fleeting moments of happiness, and I'm the kind of reader that needs a little more closure.
Secrets of Nanreath Hall was a pleasant surprise for me. I've been in a bit of a historical fiction slump lately. Though I was drawn to the description, I had not read Alix Rickloff before, and dual timelines can be tricky to pull off. But I found myself instantly absorbed in the story, and I couldn't put it down. I devoured it in two days. It's beautifully written, transporting, and emotional, and its combination of wartime fiction with mystery, family saga, and romance hits all the right notes. Highly recommended.
My Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
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