Wow. That’s the first word that came to mind when I finished this book. It was a roller coaster of a ride, with a (very) few ups and enough soul-crushing downs to make the most devoted reader require a break every now and then. But it was also riveting, addicting, and based on a network of spies that actually existed during World War I.
It’s the story of two women: Eve, the WWI spy, and Charlie, a young woman who enlists Eve’s help in looking for her cousin following the end of World War II. Eve is broken and bitter; Charlie is unsure of herself and lacks confidence in her future. They are connected in ways that aren’t immediately apparent, and their similarities are many. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, and I highly recommend that you read it if you haven’t.
So here are the questions I have this month, some of which I have borrowed from the discussion at the end of the novel:
How do you think the ending of the book would be different if Charlie had found Rose, alive and well?
How do female friendships grow and change throughout the course of the book? Not just the relationship between Eve and Charlie, but also the relationships between Eve and Lili and Eve and Violette?
Did you think Charlie was going to find Rose? Do you think it would have been a better story if she had? More or less realistic?
How and when did young Eve begin to change into the person we meet at the beginning of the book? What prompted those changes?
Finn and Captain Cameron are parallels for each other: both are Scots, ex-soldiers with war wounds and prison terms, and the support systems for the women they love who go into danger. How are the two men different as well as alike? Why does Finn succeed and Cameron fail?
Charlie argues that Rene should face justice through the legal system whereas Eve favors a form of vigilante justice. Who’s right?
The theme of fleurs du mal carries from Lili to Eve to Charlie. When does Charlie become a fleur du mal in her own right? How has knowing Eve changed Charlie’s life, and vice versa?
This will be the last book club discussion for the time being. It hasn’t been as successful an idea as I had hoped, and I would like to come up with other ideas for a regular blog feature that might get more interaction. Any ideas?
A huge thanks to those who read and discussed the books–a discussion makes the experience of reading a book even richer and deeper, and I loved hearing your thoughts and learning from you.
When I was in college my roommate and I went to Florida for spring break. No, we didn’t party on Daytona Beach or go clubbing in Panama Beach.
We visited my grandparents.
We hit a Cincinnati Reds spring training game and bought strawberries in Winter Haven. We got sunburned lying around the pool in their fifty-five-and-over community in Lakeland. And we visited Disney World with my grandfather (my grandmother stayed home because, well, she just didn’t want to deal with Disney).
It was a fabulous spring break.
Fast forward (ahem) a certain number of years and I’m still not spending spring break partying or clubbing. This year we visited our daughter, Carolyn, in England, where she’s studying this semester. We didn’t spend more than a night with her because she still had classes, so the rest of the time we stayed in a house a little over an hour away.
For those of you who are friends with me on social media, I promised a recap of the vacation. So here goes.
We got to England early in the morning on Friday, March 30th. I hate to fly, so that’s why my first photo is of a very large, very strong Bloody Mary I had at the airport. It definitely helped.
Carolyn studies at Wroxton College, which is part of Fairleigh Dickinson University. Each semester a new crop of kids goes over to study, and this semester they were very lucky to have just 31 students. The abbey, part of which dates back over a thousand years, is where they live, play, and take their classes. We spent the first night there and it is an incredible place, from winding staircases and mile-high ceilings to suits of armor and stone floors where generations of people have walked.
Saturday we explored the grounds of Wroxton, then said good-bye to Carolyn for the day (she and the rest of the students went to a football game–aka soccer–nearby) and went to the place we had rented, a house in Croome, in the Midlands.
Croome used to be a private estate, owned by a pedigreed family and designed by famous architects and horticulturalists from centuries past. Now it’s a National Trust property (kind of like a National Park would be in the US) and there are several miles of walking trails on the property. It’s truly a beautiful place.
Sunday was Easter. John picked up Carolyn from Wroxton, brought her to Croome, and we spent the day exploring Croome, topping it off with a dinner at the Plough and Harrow, a carvery located not far from Croome.
On Monday John took Carolyn back to Wroxton in time for her first class, then he returned to Croome and we left for Hereford, a town less than an hour from Croome. Hereford Cathedral is a place I read about recently and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The photos don’t do the place justice, and the artist’s exhibition of poppies weeping from an upper window in the cathedral was breathtaking.
On Tuesday we went to Wales. My favorite part of the day was our drive through the Brecon Beacons, a mountain range in southern Wales that gave us spectacular views across the ranges, peaks, and valleys dotted with sheep and cows. We took an unexpected side trip to a distillery to try Welsh whisky and found a new taste we loved.
On Wednesday we went to Stonehenge. If you’ve never been to Stonehenge in the pouring rain with wind lashing it sideways, I would suggest waiting for a sunny day. But even with the abominable weather, it’s an incredible place surrounded by fields and farms. You can see the stones from a distance on the road, but when you get up close you realize how massive they are and what a feat of engineering it must have taken to get them standing. And I had no idea some of the stones had come from over a hundred kilometers away. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to get the stones to Stonehenge. The theories about Stonehenge (who lived there, why they’re there, what is the significance of the stones) are fascinating. We could have spent longer there, but we were soaked to the skin and we wanted to get to Bath.
Bath is a city where we wish we had been able to spend more time, but we enjoyed our short visit there. It’s so named after the Roman baths that were built there during the height of the Roman empire. There are hot springs under the city and the Romans used ingenious methods to use the springs to create an awe-inspiring series of baths, pools, saunas (called sweat rooms), and heated floors where Roman citizens of every stripe would come to bathe, exercise, and socialize. The hot springs are still there, still providing hot water to the pools and baths, but today there’s a large interactive visitors center on the site rather than a place for bathing.
On Thursday we visited Stratford-Upon-Avon, the town of William Shakespeare’s birth. We had only intended to stay for a few hours, but it’s so fascinating that we ended up spending the entire day wandering the crooked streets and visiting the homes and places that were instrumental during Shakespeare’s lifetime. We visited the house where he was born, the house where his daughter lived as an adult, the grounds of the home where he lived with his wife and children in the (almost) two decades leading up to his death, the home where his wife, Ann Hathaway, grew up, and the home where Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, lived as a child. It’s still a working farm. We also had a proper English tea, complete with scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam (though I preferred the lemon curd). It was, we agreed, our favorite day of sightseeing.
On Friday we went to see Carolyn again, this time to celebrate her twentieth birthday exactly one week early. We had a lovely time walking the grounds of Wroxton again, and we hated to say good-bye when the time came. But we needed to get back to Croome to start packing for the trip home.
Saturday we flew home, all of us exhausted and happy after a whirlwind week seeing all the things we had wanted to see and walking miles upon miles in the process. And on Sunday I picked up the dog from the kennel! That, to me, is the best part of coming home.
I hope you’ve enjoyed a vicarious trip to England through this post. Our next vacation won’t be for a long time, so I’m going to have to come up with new post ideas…
Remember that this month’s book club selection is Stolen Memories by Mary Miley. I still haven’t started it, but I will in the next couple days. I hear it’s really good!
Next week: a book recommendation. I haven’t done one of those in a while and I have a great book to share with you.
Until next time,
The Life She Was Given for May, by Ellen Marie Wiseman.
I have a friend who has lived in Indiana most of his life, except for going to college in Texas and working for a brief time in Washington, DC. He said to me recently that even though he only spent a few years in Texas, that state feels like home to him. I’m sure there are Texans wondering why everyone doesn’t feel that way.
I understand how he feels. A place can exert a powerful pull on a person, even if the person hasn’t spent much time there. Maybe it can happen even if the person hasn’t spent any time there.
That’s why book settings are so important. Could Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier take place anywhere but the Cornish coast of England? Could The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner take place anywhere but Mississippi? The setting of a story is often its most essential element; in other words, there are stories that simply wouldn’t make sense if they were set somewhere else. IfRebecca took place in Paris, the story wouldn’t have the same heavy atmosphere and spookiness that it has in Cornwall. If The Sound and the Fury were set in small-town Vermont, what would be the source of Quentin’s cultural angst?
Secrets of Hallstead House is set in the Thousand Islands, one of those places that has a strong pull for those who have spent any time there. I don’t know of a single person who has been to the Thousand Islands who didn’t want to return. Could my story be set somewhere else? Not as far as I’m concerned. The St. Lawrence River and Hallstead Island are characters in the story just as much as any of the humans are.
The same is true with The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor, my story set near Charleston, South Carolina. That’s another place that stays with a person. Have you ever been to Charleston? It’s inhabitants are passionate about their city, much more so than lots of other cities. And I can see why–it’s a beautiful city with a rich history and culture all its own. It’s like no other city in the South.
I am lucky enough to live in a place which has that pull, a place that people return to year after year (particularly in the summertime). When I first moved here, I was amazed at the number of kids who went away to college and wanted nothing more than to return to their hometown to find work upon graduation. Their happy memories of many seasons spent at the beach, of surf and sand, of the boardwalk and sunrises over the Atlantic Ocean are strong enough to make those people want to return.
So in that same vein, my third story, as yet unnamed but tentatively entitled Hanging Jade Hale, (pronounced “hah-lay”), is set on the Big Island of Hawaii. I know of exactly two people who have been to Hawaii and didn’t absolutely love it. It’s a place where people experience a kind of magic that is only found there, a magic that comes from the ocean and the mountains and the trade winds and the knowledge that Hawaii is alone in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. A story set there can’t take place anywhere else in the world, and that makes its setting special.
Is there a place that calls you back, even if you’ve never been there? I’d love to hear about it!
Do you have a muse? Do you know what a muse is? I had heard the term bandied about, but never really understood it’s meaning.
So I looked it up.
The word “muse” comes from the nine mythological goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences. There was a goddess for lyre playing, epic poetry, comedy, history, and astronomy, among others.
So what is a muse in modern parlance? I guess you’d define it as the source of creative inspiration, and it’s usually a person.
I have always read about authors and songwriters and artists and their muses. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, it was his wife Zelda. For John Lennon, it was Yoko Ono. For Alfred Stieglitz, it was Georgia O’Keefe.
As I thought about muses throughout history and the artists and writers they inspired, I got thinking…who’s my muse?
And the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that I don’t have one. There is no one person who inspires my writing. And I consider this a good thing. I noticed while I was reading about historical muses that the relationships between them and their respective artists were often toxic and depressing. They frequently seemed unhappy and lost. And I don’t want to cause the people around me to feel any of those things.
I am inspired by places and by nature. I love to read about people and locales all around the world, and so I suppose it’s natural that I would choose to write about those same things. I want to inspire people to visit the places in my stories. My first book takes place in the Thousand Islands in upstate New York, and if I can get my readers to want to know more about the Thousand Islands, then I’m happy. My second book is set in South Carolina, near Charleston, and I hope I’m able to describe it well enough that readers will be able to share the experience of being there. My third book will be set in Hawaii. The islands are a feast for the senses, and I want to share that with the people who read the book.
I’d love to set a story in New York City (where I used to live) or in South Jersey (where I live now). I’d love to set a story in San Francisco (where I’ve visited) or England (where I’ve never been) or in Scotland (also, where I’ve never been). When I visit someplace new, I take lots of pictures and maybe even some notes about interesting things and people I see. I keep maps of the places I’ve been, because they can be helpful in setting a story.
I get inspired by people, too, but I could not refer to any of them as my muse. The inspiration these people provide is not creative, but motivational.
Do you have a muse? Or are you inspired by something else? I’d love to hear about it.