Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Love. Guilt. Heartbreak.
Russia is on the brink of collapse, and the Romanov family faces a terrifyingly uncertain future. Grand Duchess Tatiana has fallen in love with cavalry officer Dmitri, but events take a catastrophic turn, placing their romance – and their lives – in danger . . .
Kitty Fisher escapes to her great-grandfather’s remote cabin in America, after a devastating revelation makes her flee London. There, on the shores of Lake Akanabee, she discovers the spectacular jewelled pendant that will lead her to a long-buried family secret . . .
Last year I discovered the writing of historical fiction author Gill Paul and fell in love with her book No Place for a Lady. Now she is back with another astounding book that makes it very hard for the reader to put down despite its length you would almost read it in one sitting. The Secret Wife is spectacular in every sense of the word – the overall plot, the scope, the settings, the characters and such detailed research make for a book that will most certainly feature in my favourites when it comes to my end of year selection. Gill Paul has taken on a story that nearly 100 hundred years ago proved shocking and left people with a sense of mystery wondering could anyone have survived?
The story of the last of the Romanov's in Russia - Tsar Nicholas and his family is forever embedded in history books but here Gill Paul brings it to life once again with such colour and flair and writes what ultimately proves to be one of the most beautiful, devoted yet heartbreaking stories of enduring love that won't fail to have you moved. I loved how Gill put her own slant to the story whilst at the same time never taking away from historical fact, there was a danger the story at one point could have descended into farce just to make it suit readers who love romance and always want full explanations and satisfactory endings but this didn't happen with plain sailing and I felt the author stayed true to the story she wanted to write. At one stage I thought how could things resolves themselves seen as the story has taken such a turn and would it be such a cop out if the reasons for what had happened just appeared all to easy and solvable but it's testament to the brilliant way of words and her ability to develop the story and its characters that when the climax came I was fully invested in it and didn't feel disbelief that this could have happened. It felt realistic and made for a very accomplished novel one in which I felt I had travelled back in time to witness an epic love story which had innumerable obstacles thrown in its path.
The Secret Wife is a dual narrative story told in 2016 and beginning back in Russia in 1914 with our main male protagonist Dmitri Malama. In the present day Kitty Fisher is not in a great place having discovered her husband Tom has been unfaithful. She needs to get away from everything to step back, reassess and let her anger out over her situation and decide does she want Tom back or she is better off on her own? As luck would have it the perfect escape has presented itself as Kitty has recently discovered she has inherited a cabin in New York State from her great grandfather. Kitty travels to America to spend a summer renovating the cabin as it has lain unused for over thirty years. Isolated and left to her own devices away from modern technology, except for an odd trip to the local town, Kitty begins to find some comfort and solace and working on the cabin is a form of healing for her. The discovery of a gold pendant with jewels hidden in the grass sparks many questions for Kitty and over the course of the Summer she slowly starts to uncover her interesting family past and discover connections with a time and family she could never have dreamt possible.
Normally with a dual narrative storyline I often favour one over the other but in The Secret Wife both elements were as strong as each other and I enjoyed them equally. Gill Paul has done a fine job of mixing the past with the present and I loved how Kitty didn't go off on this mad search hurrying here there and everywhere to uncover all the connections as fast as possible. The story had such a lovely flow to it that the pace of everything to be revealed was just perfect and it was amazing how discovering something that had laid hidden in an old suitcase for many many years could allow Kitty transport herself to the past but also bring redemption and conclusion to the present.
The book moves back and forth between Kitty as she spends the Summer by the lake delving into the past and contemplating her personal situation and also the past in Russia as a wonderful love story is told, that of the relationship between Grand Duchess Tatiana and Dmitri. I would have loved to have thought that such a relationship could have been possible in real life but it's great that mixing fact with fiction the author had free rein to let the seed that inspired this book grow through such skillful writing that has you turning the pages as quick as you can to uncover all the elements of the mystery and why secrets were kept for so long? Dmitri and Tatiana meet when he is wounded in the first week of the war. Tatiana alongside her sister Olga and her mother Alexandra are nursing wounded soldiers and once Tatiana locks eyes with Dmitri she has fallen, hopelessly, helplessly in love and he reciprocates this. 'She gazed straight into his eyes as she spoke and he felt a jolt, for all the world as if he had been shot by Cupid's arrow. The words of poets through the generations, words he had previously thought trite and clichéd, suddenly made sense to him. He felt deliriously happy and wildly anxious at the same time'. This love although not conventional for the time will last through the horrors of war and no matter what paths their lives may take this relationship will always have a place in the couple's hearts. So much happens with this aspect of the story that you become completely caught up in the lives of the characters and are utterly devastated at the turn of events. Everyone knows the fate of the Romanov family but the spin Gill Paul has put on the story makes for a fascinating, powerful read which indulged my love of history and made for a solid believable love story.
As I have mentioned this book is wide in its scope and the author must have undertaken a huge amount of research in order to add such flavour and atmosphere to the story. This could have started to read like a historical non-fiction text but the narrative flows seamlessly amidst the descriptions of the Russian revolution and the over throwing of the Romanov's as the Red and White Army fight for power. I felt like I was there in Russia during such a turbulent time and witnessing the major events unfolding. But I also liked how the further we moved into the novel that we weren't stuck indefinitely in one time period or country as love is never easy and events meant that horror and heartbreak unfolded. We were almost taken on a tour of Europe as Dmitri has to battle with his conscience but also his loyalty to his country and beliefs and his own family. Decisions and actions he takes stay with him for a very long time and he has to live with what happened the further he goes into the later half of his life. As we follow Dimtri in his quest to free the one he loves from house arrest you can't help falling just that little bit in love with him yourself. He is brave, courageous, strong and admirable and his love for Tatiana felt genuine and not just a thing that would disappear the moment times got tough. I loved how he never ever gave up despite the outcome history has shown us. Normally it's the female character who dominates in a book of this nature but here Dmitri really comes to the fore and carries the majority of the book extremely well. I don't usually identify all that much with male characters but he is written in such a way that I found myself really enjoying all he brought to the book although I did miss slightly some more female participation in the later half of the book apart from that of Kitty but that couldn't be helped due to circumstances.
The Secret Wife is a story that crosses centuries and multiple events in history that have shaped the position we are presently in in today's society. I don't know how Gill Paul managed to fit so much historical fact into this story without it becoming bogged down and diverting away from the romance as its centre but she did and the most perfect balance was achieved. The reader is taken on an unforgettable journey of a love story that will stay with you for a very long time with such well rounded thought out characters. Each one you care for deeply and there is not one who becomes annoying or detestable apart from the baddies that you are supposed to loathe for what they did. There is a lot of injustice throughout the story and the latter half feels distinctively different from the first and beginning this story you never would have thought it would have taken that direction or gone so far into the future considering it started in 1917.But it didn't feel dragged out at all and in fact I wanted the book just to continue on and on. Yet the ending was apt and didn't feel in the least bit contrived as Gill Paul had weaved such a masterful story full of love, loss,power, resilience and hope. The Secret Wife blends imagination with historical fact to perfection and I wouldn't hesitate to give it five stars. If like me you love the writing of Kate Morton, Dinah Jefferies or Lucinda Riley then no question you'll love this book too.
Many thanks to Avon/Harper Collins UK for my copy of The Secret Wife to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.