I loved The Forgotten Garden so much that Kate Morton’s other books, although very good, have not been able to hold their own against it. At first I thought The Secret Keeper would also be good but not great, but a terrific surprise at the end of the book made me change my mind.
The novel begins in 1961, when sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson is up in the treehouse on the family farm dreaming about her boyfriend. She sees her mother Dorothy go into the house with her baby brother Gerry. It is Gerry’s birthday, and Laurel knows her mother has left the birthday picnic to fetch the family’s special birthday knife so she can cut the cake. A few minutes later, a stranger goes to the door, and Laurel sees her mother stab the man with a knife. He is assumed to be the man who has been attacking women in the area.
Fifty years later, Laurel is a famous character actor who has come home to visit her ill mother. Her mother’s memory is failing, but she has asked Laurel’s sister Rose to get some things out of a box that has always been private. Among them is a photograph of Dorothy and her friend Vivien, who died during the Blitz.
Laurel’s memory of the long-ago incident with the stranger has become muddied and even inaccurate, but she begins to remember it more clearly when she decides to look into it further. She finds that the attacker was Henry Jenkins, Vivien’s husband. Since Dorothy must have known Henry, there is obviously more to the story.
From here the story alternates between Laurel’s investigation in the present and the war years of young Dorothy (Dolly) Smitham. Dolly is madly in love with Jimmy Metcalfe, a newspaper photographer who also has sole care of his senile father. Dolly wants to marry immediately, but Jimmy thinks they can’t afford it yet, so Dolly takes a job as a companion to a wealthy old lady in London. At a war effort volunteer job, she meets Vivien, who lives across the street with her husband, a successful novelist. Dolly, who comes from a lower middle class background, gets carried away with the idea of leading a more exciting, fashionable life. After a series of misunderstandings, she hatches a plan to get money for her marriage and talks the reluctant Jimmy into helping.
At this point, my major problem with the novel was a growing dislike for Dolly, who seems narcissistic and lacking in conscience. I kept wondering how she was going to develop into the beloved mother of five children. But the novel goes on to unearth secrets. With Morton’s gift for storytelling and excellent writing, I think this novel is as good or better than The Forgotten Garden.