Jane Thynne brings us an epistolary novel set in London and Berlin in the late 1930s in the runup to WWII.
In the present, Juno Lambert, a photographer working her way through divorce, comes across an ancient Underwood typewriter. The typewriter shop owner tells her it was once the property of Cordelia Capel, a journalist who covered fashion in Paris and then the aftermath of WWII. In the case for the typewriter is a partially-finished manuscript written by Cordelia. Juno purchases the typewriter. Her editor has asked her to go on assignment to Berlin, and she accepts with a double purpose in mind: to perform this assignment, and find out all she can about the Capels to complete the story the manuscript began.
In the 1930s, as the decade comes to an end, the Capel sisters Irene and Cordelia are about to head their separate ways. Close for their entire lives, this brings along a bit of angst, especially as Irene is marrying a German industrialist, who has also joined the Nazi party in order to expand his business. Cordelia, a bit later, heads to Paris to act as the secretary to the news bureau chief there, and eventually begins writing columns about her coverage of fashion there.
At first, the sisters write one another often, detailing the happenings around them – there are many historical people named in the novel, from fashion designers, writers, painters, and assorted other cultural icons in France on Cordelia’s side to Nazi leaders in Germany on Irene’s.
As the storms of war ramp up, Cordelia begs Irene to leave Germany and head home to London with her. Irene refuses, and after being warned by Mary Dodd (daughter of the US Ambassador) as well as a handsome Nazi officer (Abel Hoffman) to watch what she says and writes, and knowing that she will never be able to leave without her passport (now locked in a safe to which she does not know the combination), decides to restrict her letter to Cordelia to only the social goings-on she is party to as the wife of a wealthy and influential industrialist. She tells herself, however, to memorize the things she is seeing and hearing.
Cordelia, exasperated with Irene, tells her that the letter she is writing now will be her last, since Irene has apparently chosen the Germans over her family. Cordelia falls in love with her station chief, who decides to go to Spain, where a civil war is underway. She pleads with him not to go, but eventually she returns to London, alone. There, she works with British intelligence to prepare people to act as spies. She works with Kim Philby, the notorious double agent who penetrated the intelligence service.
Back in Germany, Irene makes a fateful decision to work with resistance fighters. Not in the field, but by bringing them materials they can use to fake papers, work orders, and so forth. Eventually, she also begins working in a hospital, to treat Germans injured in the war.
Thynne does a wonderful job of describing the environments in which the two sisters lived, but not to the point of it affecting the story negatively. The bustling of both Paris and Berlin prior to the war is depicted, as is the effect of war on the Germans as WWII grinds down on the country with the advances of both US and Russian troops.
The story is strongest when it is focused on Cordelia and Irene and the milieus in which they find themselves. Juno is certainly the weakest link, and when the book reached the last quarter, it was all Juno and what she had been able to discover, with her egocentric ex making an unwelcome appearance – an unneeded push to the story, as he served no purpose other than to reinforce to Juno that she was doing the right thing.
I won’t go into the very end so as not to spoil it. I will say this is one of the best books I’ve read this year so far, and very well written. It is dramatic without being melodramatic, romantic without being cliche, and descriptive without being flowery.
4 out of 5 stars.
Thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine books for the advance copy.