At only 16 years old, Laurel Nicolson sees a person she has known as loving and gentle commit murder in cold blood. The authorities claim the murder was an act of self-defense, but Laurel knows better. She will spend the next 50 years of her life keeping the secret and wondering why it happened in the first place. But the need to know the truth becomes urgent: Soon after the book opens, we learn that the murderer is now dying after a very long and mostly happy life.
The Secret Keeper alternates between the present day, where Laurel, now an Academy Award-winning actress, is trying to beat the clock, and the time of the London Blitz, those days in 1940 and 1941 when London and other British cities were under continuous nighttime bombing by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. In the midst of this horror we’re introduced to two young women—Dorothy and Vivien—and their men. Dorothy, then called Dolly, is a dreamy girl whose family was wiped out in the notorious Coventry bombing. She is engaged to Jimmy Metcalfe, a war photographer. Vivien, whose own family tragedy happened years before, is an Australian émigré married to a wealthy, much older, monstrously cruel writer. Their losses have driven both girls a little mad. Dolly has delusions that the cranky old dowager she works for will leave her a fortune, though we understand that the dowager only thinks of her as a servant. Vivien, who blames herself for the loss of her family, believes she deserves the punishment her husband, and the world, metes out. Though the women barely know each other, Dolly’s delusions quickly come to envelop Vivien as well.
Best-selling author Kate Morton takes her time unraveling this story, which begins with one secret, then leads to another the reader really wasn’t expecting. In addition to the plot’s clever twists and turns, the characterizations are also pleasing. There’s not only the tragic Dolly and Vivien, but the dogged and somewhat queenly Laurel, her sisters and their absent-minded professor of a younger brother. A long book that passes quickly, The Secret Keeper is a study of war and other tragedies, what they can do to people, and how their repercussions can carry on for decades.