I should have learned by now - I start all Kate Morton books with a great deal of anticipation only to get bogged down about a hundred pages in by the very slowly developing mystery and shifting time lines. Usually, I set it down only to come back and finish the book in one great gulp as all the plot lines and mysteries come together. By the end, I'm almost heartbroken that it's ended and find myself wishing for more.
The Secret Keeper was no different. I was drawn in the main narrator - Laurel, a famous actress in her sixties, facing the death of mother she adored. Laurel and her mother are bound by a horrific event forty years before, an event Laurel has struggled to understand in the context of her mother's life and her own. She starts her own investigation into her mother's past and we're soon flung back into a beautifully recreated Blitz-era London - Morton only needs a song or a slash of red lipstick to bring that world to life. I loved that she somehow managed to make that much-examined era feel fresh and current with the characters' personal problems crowding around - and sometimes crowding out - the larger concerns of war.
Back in the current timeline, Morton has also done a better job of integrating real feeling and some deeper observations about love, friendship and parent-child relationships. In her past books, feeling has served second to the mystery but that certainly isn't the case here as in this passage where Laurel sits by the bedside of her dying mother:
"The previous speech, whatever memories it had brought with it, had tired Dorothy - the wind lost from her sails and she was slumped now against the cushions....Laurel studied her mother's profile, wishing she had been a different sort of daughter, wishing there was more time, that she could go back and do it all again, not leave everything to the last and find herself sitting at her mother's bed with so many blanks to fill."
Morton does a beautiful job of balancing perspectives on characters - I especially loved a chapter late in the novel introducing the reader to the childhood of one of the main protagonists. The writing and imagery in this chapter was gorgeous and yet increased the suspense related to the main plot. Almost everyone in the book has something to hide or has done something morally questionable and yet they were all fascinating, sympathetic people. My main quibble was with the central relationship between Dolly and Vivien - while the book gave reasons for Dolly's obsession with Vivien, I found that element of the book underdeveloped and since this is the main hinge upon which the plot swings, I had to move past that disbelief and accept all that came afterwards.
The central mysteries and secrets didn't seem quite as far-fetched as plot twists in other Morton novels and while one plot element I suspected all along did end up happening, I was still engaged until the end. Looking back, I can see that I've reviewed this book based largely on Morton's previous works. Really, that's the only to evaluate this unique author who has built a mini-genre all her own out of shifting plots set in England from about 1880-1940. She'll most likely return to these topics again and again - and because she does such a beautiful job each time, I'll always return!
Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.