Historical Fiction are usually not my kind of thing because for all the degrees that I have, a history one is not one of them and in my line of work I never had to know that much about history. And whatever little history that I’ve learnt in school was extremely boring to me, so it never did stoke an interest in me to learn more.
So when I picked up The Secret Wife by Gill Paul from the local library, it was completely without the knowledge that it is a historical fiction – by that I mean it is fiction but based on an actual historical event. I simply thought it was going to be a book of fiction about a woman who flees her home and coincidentally unravels a long-buried family secret.
Very surprisingly, I will admit right off that I truly enjoyed it. It’s very different from the usual books that I’ve read in recent months as I’ve been looking for very easy and cheerful books to read because I’m trying not to sink back into depression; I haven’t been reading many books with much depth so this was a rather refreshing change.
**This part of the review consist of Spoilers
Kitty Fisher flees from London to a remote cabin at Lake Akanabee in America, which she inherited upon her great-grandfather Dmitri Malama’s death, after discovering that her husband Tom has been cheating on her. At the cabin, she finds a pendant and some old writings and she becomes consumed with uncovering the true story of Dmitri, whom she had known nothing about as he was estranged from the rest of the family.
In 1914, russian soldier Dmitri meets Tatiana Romanov, the grand duchess of Russia and second daughter of Tsar Nicholas, who was volunteering at the hospital where he was staying at to recover from an injury at the frontline. The two fall in love, but fate separates them repeatedly; first by sending Dmitri back to the frontline, and as the war deepens, by the overthrow of the Tsar and the subsequent imprisonment of the Romanov family.
Even after the reported murder of the Romanovs, Dmitri holds out hope that Tatiana is alive. He travels to wherever there were news that the surviving members of the Romanov family could be, but to no avail. Eventually, he meets another woman Rosa and starts a family but out of love for Tatiana, he could not remarry. He becomes a reporter and writer, and relocates to America during the second world war to protect his family.
On a book tour back in Europe, Dmitri meets Tatiana. Unfortunately, Dmitri could not leave his family but cannot leave Tatiana behind either, so he brings Tatiana back to America where she becomes his mistress as well as book translator. A few years later, when Rosa dies from breast cancer, Dmitri runs to Tatiana in grief, only to be caught by his children who were outraged that their father is with his mistress just moments after their mother died. That leads to Dmitri being estranged from his family for the rest of his life.
In modern day, while fixing up the cabin, Kitty finds a body buried in there and calls the police; eventually they find out that the body belongs to Tatiana and realises that she must have died in her old age at the cabin and Dmitri decided to bury her body there to keep her with him. Kitty makes up with Tom, who has been making a lot of effort to get her back including seeing a counsellor about his cheating.
As mentioned earlier, I really did enjoy this book. I think the fact that I did not know any historical background about the true event surrounding the Romanov family made it more enjoyable because I didn’t have any preconception about how the book should end. I also had a lot of fun reading about the Romanov family, even though at first I thought it was all fiction – then I thought surely the author can’t be making all of it up which led me to look up a little. I think any book that makes you want to research more gets extra points from me.
I loved the relationship between Tatiana and Dmitri – it was really touching, even though even without any historical hindsight, I already kind of knew that it was going to be a painful one. I love how Dmitri struggled with his new relationship with Rosa, not because I’m sadistic but because it feels real – fighting against his natural bodily reactions though he was bounded to Tatiana and later struggling with his love for Tatiana versus his family.
The writing style switches between the past and present, as well as through different locations. Usually it would be rather confusing, but I find that the author uses different writing tones and styles when it switches between time and place, so that you could tell exactly who it is talking about at any time and I really appreciate that. The switches are also not too fast – there are a good few chapters for every switch, so it’s a very nice pace.
It’s definitely not a perfect book though; I find the “present” to be a little lame, and I would rather have a lot less of it. Tom is a loser of a husband, and Kitty is a whiney woman who doesn’t really have much going for her other than having an interesting great grandfather. She serves as an easy and somewhat probable way to discover the hidden story, but I don’t think she warranted as many pages as she was given.
In all, I really did enjoy this book. I would recommend skimming through all the “modern day” parts if you’re rushed for time, just to get a gist of what is going on, and focus on the “past” parts because that’s really where the real and great story is.