The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable – Nancy Mitford’s mysterious legacy from the challenges of War

The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable

This brilliant book is set in two time periods and in the same place; a book shop in London in the Second World War and the present day. It also features Nancy Mitford, novelist and at this time, underpaid Bookseller. A novel of the difficulties of surviving in London as the scars of the worst of the blitz are everywhere and the War is an ever present threat. It also shows how Nancy is struggling to cope with her notorious family, her lonely marriage and the need to write a successful book. The contemporary section of the book, being eighty years later, features Katie, who has a deep need for a change in her life. This book of secrets, suspicions and mysteries has much to say about the need to write, the problems of families in both time periods, and the social pressures on relationships. The two main female protagonists both struggle with the problems of long standing relationships and the demands on them to write a best seller, even in trying circumstances. Those who know something of Nancy Mitford’s life and family will find much to interest them here, as the participants in one of the most famous family sagas feature in Nancy’s strand of the story, whereas those who know little or nothing of the outrageous Mitfords will learn a lot! There is a “Selected List of Sources” which lists the main books about the six women whose behaviour and choices were so newsworthy for the middle of the twentieth century. The twenty-first century section is a mystery with elements of romance, featuring some memorable characters and reminding the reader that the Second World War is not that far in the past. It is a novel which revells in its setting of a London of booksellers established for so long, witnessing social change and significant characters of the time. I found it a compelling read, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable and informative novel.

The book opens with a glimpse of Nancy in Paris with her lover, the Colonel, referring to the stories  of her childhood that she had fictionalised in her best known novel “The Pursuit of Love”. How had she achieved this bright moment, she wonders. “Cheers to novels, I’d say! Cheers to readers the world over”. The focus switches to Katie, hungover in the company of her nieces, piecing together the terrible memories of a disastrous Thanksgiving meal with her family, when she reveals that she has broken up with her partner of so many years. She is soon in London, staying with her wealthy friend Jojo who lives very near to Heywood Hill, a book shop which bears a plaque recording that Nancy Mitford, “Writer worked here  1942 – 1945”. The other focus of the novel tells of how Nancy had arrived here, deprived of her allowance and not having seen “Prod”, her husband Peter, for a long time. She needs to work for money, for company, and to hopefully inspire her to write again. The question of a mysterious autobiography, revealing much about her current situation, is a tantalising mystery throughout both narratives, as  Katie is inspired by a chance meeting to seek out the elusive manuscript, and Nancy is desperately trying to find the impetus to write among the distractions of war and other writers who form part of her social set. 

This book is incredibly well researched, as Gable has used the extant letters of Mitford and others to provide the style of the dialogue between Nancy and the other wartime characters. The research is never allowed to interfere with the power of the story however, and the characters appear fully formed on the page. The modern section is lively and well written, highlighting aspects of Nancy’s story, especially in the light of her very successful “The Pursuit of Love”. This is a satisfying novel of a fascinating author in a fictional narrative, and I found it an enthralling read.