Book Review: Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

By: Sophia Lo, Teen Volunteer

517Bj33PJbL4.5 out of 5 stars

From the cover of Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner, it doesn’t seem as if London is in a time of
war; yet as the story begins, readers are quickly immersed in the story of Emmeline, or Emmy Downtree, and her experiences and memories of World War II.

Emmy Downtree is only 15 when she and her 7-year old sister, Julia, are taken from their mother and home in London and relocated to the countryside due to the dangers of the war. Before this, Emmy is on her way to living out her dream of owning her own bridal shop: she works at a bridal shop sewing dresses and has sent out her designs in hopes of earning an apprenticeship with a designer.

Emmy and Julia are brought to live with Charlotte Havelock at the Thistle House in the small town of Stow-on-the-Wold. Here, Julia is enamoured by the gardens and the chickens while Emmy is still upset at having to leave London. The possibility of an apprenticeship leads Emmy to return to London along with Julia, just as the Blitz begins. Quickly, the sisters are separated as bombs rain down on the city, and the lives of the Downtree sisters are dramatically altered.

As the first novel by Susan Meissner I’ve read, this exceeded my expectations. The story had just enough suspense and surprises to keep me from putting the book down while not being too overwhelming or confusing. Meissner crafts a complex story with Emmy’s hopes and dreams, her conflict with her mother, the mystery of her unknown father, and her own internal conflict as she deals with the aftermath.

What really interested me most about the novel was Emmy herself. From the beginning, it is clear that Emmy has a goal in mind and is intent on pursuing her passion as a designer. Understandably, she reacts negatively to the news of her relocation, and throughout the novel, Meissner’s writing allows Emmy’s feelings and convictions to be clearly seen by her audience as she effectively develops Emmy as a character through conflicts and trials.

Another character I enjoyed was Charlotte Havelock, Emmy’s foster mother. Her first interactions with Emmy led to my instant approval, and her compassion is endless. In the novel, Charlotte Havelock is a representation of the importance of kindness and need for understanding and forgiveness. Her drastic difference from Emmy’s mother is fascinating to look at, and her impact on Emmy is visible as the novel progresses.

Although the book’s plot and characters are excellent, the ending seems lacking. There is a shift from Emmy’s perspective to Julia’s perspective of the war after being separated from Emmy as told through Julia’s journal. The sudden change is awkward, and while readers do gain some value from Julia’s struggles, I would have rather had a greater focus on Emmy and how she made amends with her father’s side of the family. The jump from Emmy’s life after the war to her life at the end of the novel was a dramatic shift that Meissner failed to address. Emmy’s life changed in so many ways even after the war, but instead, we learn about how Julia’s life changed. While I do believe that wrapping up Julia’s story is crucial to the novel, a quarter of the book didn’t need to be dedicated to that. The ending, however, does have merit by showing that people are able to overcome difficult times and create new, full lives.

Overall, the novel’s plot and characters were captivating, but there was more that could have been added to tie the ending together. At its core, Secrets of a Charmed Life is a wonderful narrative that allows its audience to experience strong emotions as Emmy does, and I would highly recommend this book to teenage readers.

Sophia Lo is a junior at Hopewell Valley Central High School and a teen PR volunteer at the Pennington Public Library. She is also an editor of her school newspaper, treasurer for her FBLA chapter, and co-president of the Mock Trial Club. Sophia is a lover of all things fantasy and is slightly obsessed with George R.R. Martin’s series, A Game of Thrones.