I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
A one-time author suffering from a personal loss and the horrors of WWII must decide if a story she’s been asked to tell is worth the price her life may pay as the hunt for her manuscript 80 years later takes on a whole new meaning in author Michelle Gable’s “The Bookseller’s Secret: A Novel of Nancy Mitford and WWII”.
From New York Times bestselling author Michelle Gable comes a dual-narrative set at the famed Heywood Hill Bookshop in London about a struggling American writer on the hunt for a rumored lost manuscript written by the iconic Nancy Mitford—bookseller, spy, author, and aristocrat—during World War II.
In 1942, London, Nancy Mitford is worried about more than air raids and German spies. Still recovering from a devastating loss, the once sparkling Bright Young Thing is estranged from her husband, her allowance has been cut, and she’s given up her writing career. On top of this, her five beautiful but infamous sisters continue making headlines with their controversial politics.
Eager for distraction and desperate for income, Nancy jumps at the chance to manage the Heywood Hill bookshop while the owner is away at war. Between the shop’s brisk business and the literary salons she hosts for her eccentric friends, Nancy’s life seems on the upswing. But when a mysterious French officer insists that she has a story to tell, Nancy must decide if picking up the pen again and revealing all is worth the price she might be forced to pay.
Eighty years later, Heywood Hill is abuzz with the hunt for a lost wartime manuscript written by Nancy Mitford. For one woman desperately in need of a change, the search will reveal not only a new side to Nancy, but an even more surprising link between the past and present…
This was a remarkable story. The way the author balances the history and knowledge of the infamous author’s life and the war itself with the more modern-day characters who begin discovering things about Nancy as they search for her long-lost manuscript was so fascinating to see unfold. The setting of both time periods and the descriptive way the author writes really does a great job of painting a picture of the events of this narrative so perfectly.
It was the character growth in this book that really sold me on this narrative. The modern-day protagonist, Katie, really drew the reader in and kept the mystery and wonder of discovering more about Nancy’s life alive, while Nancy herself was engaging and mesmerizing as she balanced her work in the bookstore, her standing in social circles in the midst of her loss and the war, and of course her passionate affair with the French General who became the love of her life.
A beautiful, heartfelt, and creative approach to historical fiction narratives, author Michelle Gable’s “The Bookseller’s Secret” is a must-read novel of 2021. The perfect balance of dual-narratives with mystery and history blended in made this story shine brightly, and the setting really will engage history buffs while hitting the heartstrings in the process. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!
About the Author
MICHELLE GABLE is the New York Times bestselling author of A Paris Apartment, I’ll See You in Paris, The Book of Summer, and The Summer I Met Jack. She attended The College of William & Mary, where she majored in accounting, and spent twenty years working in finance before becoming a full-time writer. She grew up in San Diego and lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, with her husband and two daughters. Find her at michellegable.com or on Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest, @MGableWriter.
Q&A with Michelle Gable
Q: What’s the “story behind the story” for The Bookseller’s Secret? Why did you decide to write this book?
A: I’ve been a longtime fan of Nancy Mitford’s work and became obsessed with the entire Mitford clan after reading The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell, about twenty years ago. In short, Nancy was one of six beautiful sisters with very distinct (and controversial!) personas: Nancy the novelist, Pamela the countrywoman, Diana the Fascist (and “most hated woman in England”), Unity the Hitler confidante, Jessica the Communist, and Deborah the Duchess. Writing something about this crew has been in the back of my mind since long before I was published and when tossing around ideas, my agent brought up Nancy’s time at the Heywood Hill bookshop during the Blitz. I love London, and any novel set in a bookstore, as well as new takes on the World War II genre, so I was game.
As for the modern storyline, though Katie’s life is vastly different from mine, let’s just say we share some of the same writerly angst!
Q: What message do you hope readers take from the story?
A: I never write with a message in mind, I just hope something about the story sticks with readers, whether it’s a character, some piece of history learned, or a new way of looking at a situation. I’m shocked how few Americans know about Nancy Mitford (even fellow writers) so I do hope readers walk away with an appreciation for her brilliance (and humor!)
Q: Do you have any specific writing rituals (favorite shirt, pen, drink, etc)?
A: I don’t! Sometimes I handwrite, sometimes I write on a computer. Sometimes I have coffee, or water, or Diet Coke. Usually I work in my home office but have been known to write during my daughters’ softball games. I started this book in February 2020 so most of it was written when EVERYONE was home on lockdown. One of my daughters took over my office so I spent a lot of time writing in my bedroom, with the dog curled up next to me. This is when I learned my husband uses binders for work (click-click-click).
One “habit” that is consistent is that I always stop in the middle of something that is going well so it’s easier to pick up the next day. Few things are more daunting than staring at a blank page!
Q: Which character do you relate to the most?
A: I relate to Katie’s writerly angst, but I really connected to Nancy Mitford’s writing style. I’d like to think we have similar senses of humor but that is giving myself a lot of credit!
Q: What can you tell us about your next project?
A: Though I vowed no more WWII novels, I couldn’t help myself! This one takes place in Rome, near the end of the war, and centers on women who created propaganda to feed to the Germans, the goal to lower morale. It’s an exploration of how misinformation not only affects those receiving it, but those creating it.
Q: What do you think drives authors to continue to find stories to tell set around WWII?
A: I think because there are endless stories to tell! It involves most every country, even so called “neutral” countries, and people from literally every walk of life. Brave and scared. Rich and poor. Powerful and powerless. Obedient and rebellious. Every combination of the human experience!
Q: How are you hoping readers will relate to this story?
A: I don’t have any specific hopes, just that they do! And, of course, I want everyone to gain a new appreciation for Nancy Mtiford.
Q: What’s something that you connected with personally as you researched and wrote this story?
A: While she was working at Heywood Hill, Nancy was struggling with ideas for her fifth book just as I had been with my fifth book when my agent suggested writing about her! Also, her husband and mine look exactly alike which is a little creepy. You don’t see a lot of tall, blonde, adult men. And Nancy Mitford died exactly one year to the day before I was born, which also felt like it meant something.
An Exclusive Excerpt From “The Bookseller’s Secret”
Hotel de Bourgogne, Paris VII
There they are, held like flies in the amber of that moment—click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes…and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves.
—Nancy Mitford,The Pursuit of Love
“Alors, racontez!” the Colonel said, and spun her beneath his arm.
Nancy had to duck, of course. The man was frightfully short.
She laughed, thinking of all the times the Colonel made this demand. Racontez! Tell me!
“Allô—allô,” he’d say across some crackling line. “Were you asleep?”
He might be in Paris, or Algiers, or another place he could not name. Weeks or months would pass and then a phone rang in London and set Nancy Mitford’s world straight again.
“Alors, racontez! Tell me everything!”
And she did.
The Colonel found Nancy’s stories comical, outrageous, unlike anything he’d ever known, his delight beginning first and foremost with the six Mitford girls, and their secret society. Nancy also had a brother, but he hardly counted at all.
“C’est pas vrai!” the Colonel would cry, with each new tale. “That cannot be true!”
“It all happened,” Nancy told him. “Every word. What do you expect with a Nazi, a Communist, and several Fascists, in one family tree?”
But the Hon Society was the past, and this gilded Parisian hotel room was now, likewise Nancy’s beloved Colonel, presently reaching into the bucket of champagne. How had she gotten to this place? It was the impossible dream.
“Promise we can stay here forever,” Nancy said.
“Here or somewhere like it,” he answered with a grin.
Nancy’s heart bounced. Heavens, he was ever-so-ugly with his pock-marked face and receding hairline, the precise opposite of her strapping husband, a man so wholesome he might’ve leapt from the pages of a seedsman catalogue. But Nancy loved her Colonel with every part of herself, in particular the female, which represented another chief difference between the two men.
“You know, my friends are desperate to take a French lover,” Nancy said, and she tossed her gloves onto the bed. “All thanks to a fictional character from a book. Everyone is positively in love with Fabrice!”
“Bien sûr, as in real life,” the Colonel said as he popped the cork.
The champagne bubbled up the bottle’s neck, and dribbled onto his stubby hands.
“You’re such a wolf!” Nancy said. She heaved open the shutters and scanned the square below. “At last! A hotel with a view.”
Their room overlooked Le Palais Bourbon, home to l’Assemblée nationale, the two-hundred-year seat of the French government, minus the interlude during which it was occupied by the Luftwaffe. Mere months ago German propaganda hung from the building: DEUTSCHLAND SIEGT AN ALLEN FRONTEN. Germany is victorious on all fronts. But the banners were gone now, and France had been freed. Nancy was in Paris, just as she’d planned.
“This is heaven!” Nancy said. She peered over her shoulder and coquettishly kicked up a heel. “A luncheon party tomorrow? What do you think?”
“Okay, chéri, quoi que tu en dises,” the Colonel said, as she sauntered toward him.
“Whatever I want?” Nancy said. “I’ve been dying to hear those words! What about snails, chicken, and port salut? No more eating from tins for you. On that note, darling, you mustn’t worry about your job prospects. I know you’ll miss governing France but, goodness, we’ll have so much more free time!”
Nancy was proud of the work the Colonel had done as General de Gaulle’s chef du cabinet, but his resignation made life far more convenient. No longer would she have to wait around, or brook his maddeningly specific requests. I’ve got a heavy political day LET ME SEE—can you come at 2 minutes to 6?
“It’s really one of the best things that could’ve happened to us,” Nancy said. “Oh, darling, life will be pure bliss!”
Nancy leaned forward and planted a kiss on the Colonel’s nose.
“On trinque?” he said, and lifted a glass.
Nancy raised hers to meet it.
“Santé!” he cheered.
Nancy rolled her eyes. “The French are so dull with their toasts. Who cares about my health? It’s wretched, most of the time. Cheers to novels, I’d say! Cheers to readers the world over!”
“À la femme auteur, Nancy Mitford!” The Colonel clinked her glass. “Vive la littérature!”
Excerpted from The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable, Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Gable Bilski. Published by Graydon House Books.