4 out of 4 stars
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The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg is a historical fiction book. It spans almost two years in the life of Charmian Kittredge London. Charmian was an author and editor. She was married to Jack London, who was arguably the most famous American author of his time. We are introduced to other famous figures of the past, all fictionalized to fit in with the alluring plot. We see how Charmian and Bess Houdini, the wife of the world-renowned Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, despite being exceptional women in their own rights, put aside personal ambition to support their celebrated husbands. Simply put, theirs are complex marriages, and The Secret Life of Mrs. London brings these relationships to life by depicting probable events in the lives of these two fascinating couples.
Charmian is at a place in her life where all she wishes for is a quiet domestic life with her husband, Jack London. She longs for his love and devotion. She yearns to have him exclusively to herself. She is Jack's muse, comrade, and editor. She keeps him on track by ensuring that he sticks to his goal of writing a thousand words per day. Jack’s self-absorption causes him to overlook her needs. He fails to realise that she is a woman who has put her own career on hold to support his. When the couple meets the mysterious Houdinis, Charmian is overwhelmed by the immense attraction between her and the enigmatic Harry Houdini. With Jack’s sporadic bursts of interest in her, will she be able to resist Houdini’s charm?
The Secret Life of Mrs. London is written from Charmian’s point of view. This gave me the feeling of coming to know Charmian intimately. As she narrates the events of her life, you come to view her as that sophisticated, worldly friend you are honoured to know, who manages to remain unpretentious. Her wit was especially endearing. For example, at one of Houdini’s shows, she describes how her husband is having a deep conversation with Anna Strunsky and how an actress, Blanche, is hanging onto Jack’s arm. Blanche pretends to understand and follow the conservation. Charmian observes and curtly comments, “She doesn’t.” Yet, there are still some things about Charmian that are a mystery to me – she doesn’t give it all away in her narration, which served to pique my interest further.
Another character I came to love was Bess Houdini. At first, Charmian describes her as giddy – the type of woman Jack can’t stand. Throughout their first dinner together, Charmian ignores her. Later on, as Charmian spends more time with the doll-faced Mrs. Houdini, she comes to adore her. Bess has strange tendencies which make her all the more fun to be around, like how she carries around a Victoria Woodhull doll. She also has a limitless imagination that drives Houdini insane at times. The fun-loving Bess has her share of sorrows though, creating a well-rounded character. The rest of the supporting characters helped to portray the type of world that the Londons lived in. I loved that we are introduced to some of the talented bohemians who made up the “Crowd”.
A theme I greatly enjoyed was the theme of “free love”. Free love is the idea that sexual relations are to be enjoyed without being restricted by marriage or long-term relationships. Charmian was raised by her vivacious aunt, Netta. Her aunt has always asserted that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.” Despite this, Charmian has never bought into concept of free love. She repeatedly states throughout the book that “free love is never free.” Despite this, it was frustrating to see how Jack expected Charmian to remain faithful to him without feeling the need to remain faithful to her. The double standard set by society in terms of fidelity between the sexes was well-explored and interesting to read about.
This is one of the best books I have laid my hands on lately. I rate it 4 out of 4 stars. It is immaculately edited and has been beautifully formatted. Each chapter opens with an extract from the real Jack London’s writings, adding another layer of realism to the book. Women of all ages and historical fiction fans will love this book.
The Secret Life of Mrs. London
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