Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Brenda Stuart returns to her late husband’s home devastated by his loss only to find herself accused of bestowing favours upon the Germans.
Life has been difficult for her over the war, having been held in an internment camp in France simply because of her nationality. Thankful that her son at least was safe in the care of his grandmother, she now finds that she has lost him too, and her life is in turmoil.
Prue, her beloved sister-in-law, is also a war widow but has now fallen in love with an Italian PoW who works on the family estate. Once the war ends they hope to marry but she has reckoned without the disapproval of her family, or the nation.
The two friends support each other in an attempt to resolve their problems and rebuild their lives. They even try starting a business, but it does not prove easy.
Last year quite be chance I discovered the writing of Freda Lightfoot when I read Home is Where the Heart Is and was very surprised by what a good book it turned out to be. The cover didn't really stand out and wouldn’t be a talking point but the story between the pages proved to be a brilliant read and made me want to read more from this author. So when I saw this new book Always in my Heart I knew I wanted to give it a go as historical fiction is my favourite genre to read and I am always looking for new authors who provide a different spin on stories that have been told multiple times before particularly those based in and around World War Two. This new book once again proved to be a very good read with a twist that I had never seen coming and to be honest I was kicking myself because really all the clues had been there. This isn't the usual run of the mill wartime saga, it has a lot more depth to it with a solid storyline that leaves the reader guessing throughout whilst also focusing on the development of the characters. Even though I have only read two books by Freda Lightfoot it's clear she is a gifted, accomplished storyteller who has you eagerly turning the pages keen to see what next lies in store for the main characters.
Always in my Heart alternates between England in 1944 and France in 1941/42 for the majority of the novel. I love books that go back and forth in time and did initially question why there was such a short timespan being employed throughout the story? In fact my fears proved unfounded as it all genuinely helped to add flavour and depth to the story and provided a fascinating insight into our main female protagonist Brenda. We got to see her in 1944 and what her exact situation was but by taking us back two/three years we see a different character and it helped the reader to feel genuine sympathy but also respect for a woman who went through so much but at all times was strong, brave and resilient. These are the characters traits I would most associate with Brenda throughout the entire story. Not once did she waver from what she believed was right or what she felt had occurred. She stuck by her opinions and beliefs and never swayed no matter how much opposition was placed in her path by those supposedly close to her. The author showcased Brenda's strengths and feelings to perfection and she made for a character whom the reader wanted only a positive outcome for.
We first meet Brenda as she is on the last leg of an incredible tough and arduous journey. It's 1944 and although the war may not yet be over Brenda is at last returning home to Trowbridge Hall. Immediately the reader can sense that she has been through such trauma and unspeakable events but there is something drawing her back to the place where she met and fell in love with her husband Jack. It's only as the chapters unfold and we slip forward and back in time that we uncover her story and it all gelled so well with how we find her today. Although her love had been forbidden as she came from a poor background and was an orphan the son of the house Jack fell hook line and sinker for Brenda and that was that. Nothing would tear them apart and having been thrown out they escaped to Paris to Camille – Jack's mother. Unfortunately their union was short lived and Brenda was left a widow.
So clearly to be returning to the hall must be extremely difficult for Brenda but there is something driving her on. It's this driving spirit and never taking no for an answer that dominates Brenda's character throughout the book and I mean that in a good way. Finally we don't have a character who is weak and the reader is meant to feel all sympathy towards them. Here was a woman who had been deeply wronged and she was back to get answers and answers she would get whatever it took and no matter the length of time. What courage it must have taken to a return to a place where you are not welcome but deep in your heart you want to find the son that you were forced to leave behind when you were captured then surely return to the family home is what you would do. It's said within the first few chapters why Brenda has returned and although this 'quest' didn't dominate the entire story it was always there in the background bubbling away and for most of the book I was thinking where on earth could he be? Something just wasn't adding up. The author did a brilliant job on filling in the background of Brenda's time in Paris and also when she was taken away and when she made a friend - Emma in the harshest of circumstances. It was a fascinating aspect to the story but also rather upsetting that this genuinely happened to many women, it was heartbreaking but written with the utmost tact and sensitivity.
So apart from Brenda we have Hugh, Jack's brother, whose father has recently died placing him in charge of the farm estate and their biscuit factory. He appeared surly and had a chip on his shoulder and didn't believe a marriage between Brenda and Jack had even taken place in the first place. He had plenty of worries on his shoulders and I know we saw a softer side to him as the novel progressed and he attempted to let his guard down but I never really warmed to him even though he was meant to replace Jack as the 'heartthrob' of the story. As for his sister Melissa, married to the repulsive Gregory, she was a horrible character and very very devious in attempting to stop Brenda at every turn, I was glad she flitted in and out of the book as I wasn't keen to read much about her.
Maybe the character alongside Brenda whom I loved most of all was Prue - the youngest of the family. She loves working outdoors and tending the gardens and farm. She seemed to be the most sensible and loyal of the family now that Jack was gone. She was an ally, confidant and friend to Brenda when the rest of the family clearly didn't want to know or admit that Brenda was now related to them. Prue had her own story regarding an Italian prisoner of war sent to work on the farm. It could have felt out of place within the overall context of the story as the focus was on Brenda and her finding her lost son but Prue's storyline was realistic, heartfelt and most certainly had it's place. At one or two points I did feel the story flagged in places before picking up once again. There seemed to be a bit too much back and forth regrading Brenda staying at the hall then leaving then returning etc and I felt this could have been left out but apart from that this was a very good read.
Always in my Heart kept me guessing and hooked until the very last page and proved to me that Freda Lightfoot is an author whose back catalogue I want to read and anything she publishes in the future will always be placed on my wishlist. Wartime sagas can become a bit predictable and routine but this one is different from all the rest, it had great substance to it which is hard to do considering so many books have been written on the subject over the years. It had an element of mystery and suspense alongside the romantic plotlines and that's what sets it apart and makes for a very good read. There were several stories all which worked well separately but they then they came together at just the right time and left the reader going ah damn I should have seen that coming yet the author would be pleased she had pulled the wool over your eyes.
Fans of historical fiction will love Always in my Heart as it's only as you reach the end do you realise what an apt title that is. People new to Freda Lightfoot's will enjoy this book particularly now as a nice alternative to all the Christmas books published at the moment. I was sad to reach the end of Brenda's story but I am already looking forward to what compelling tale Freda Lightfoot may bring to us in 2017.
Many thanks to Harlequin Uk for my copy of Always in my Heart to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.