I’m delighted to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg. The book tells the fascinating story of a woman who became close to two famous men: novelist, Jack London, and escape artist, Harry Houdini. I absolutely loved it and you can read my review below.
Visit the tour page for links to the other great bloggers taking part in the tour. As well as other reviews, you’ll find them hosting interviews, guest posts from Rebecca and some giveaways (for US residents only).
About the Book
San Francisco, 1915. As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius and desire, politics and marital competitiveness. Charmian longs to be viewed as an equal partner who put her own career on hold to support her husband, but Jack doesn’t see it that way…until Charmian is pulled from the audience during a magic show by escape artist Harry Houdini, a man enmeshed in his own complicated marriage. Suddenly, charmed by the attention Houdini pays her and entranced by his sexual magnetism, Charmian’s eyes open to a world of possibilities that could be her escape.
As Charmian grapples with her urge to explore the forbidden, Jack’s increasingly reckless behaviour threatens her dedication. Now torn between two of history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, she must find the courage to forge her own path, even as she fears the loss of everything she holds dear.
Praise for The Secret Life of Mrs. London
“The Secret Life of Mrs. London is a heart-wrenching portrait of a marriage between two people who utterly depend on one another, but ultimately aren’t enough for each other. With skilful precision of language, Rosenberg weaves a narrative that defines the complexities of love, passion, and art. This is a perceptive, deeply moving novel by a great new talent about a couple who has gone unnoticed in historical fiction until now. Anyone who has ever loved another person will want to read this book.” (Victoria Kelly, author of Mrs. Houdini: A Novel)
“One of Houdini’s best kept secrets was his affair with Charmian London in 1918. Now Rebecca Rosenberg tells the story using an elegant blend of fact and fiction, creating a Houdini book like no other. The Secret Life of Mrs. London is a true peek behind the curtain and a page-turner.” [John Cox, Wild about Harry]
Format: eBook, paperback (348 pp.) Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Published: 30th January 2018 Genre: Historical Fiction
Find The Secret Life of Mrs. London on Goodreads
A book about the domestic lives of great writers or artists, albeit fictionalised, is fast becoming my idea of historical fiction heaven. So, when the opportunity arose to read The Secret Life of Mrs. London, I simply couldn’t resist. I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed.
The book is a portrait of a passionate, tempestuous marriage between two unconventional people. In Charmian’s mind ‘Jack is the tornado, and I am the vortex that keeps him swirling. The empty eye of the storm. Nothing without Jack.’ At one point she reflects that he is ‘A dashing, unfathomable mixture of men, my Jack: adventurer, farmer, aristocrat, Bohemian, land baron, Socialist, warrior.’
The more I read of The Secret Life of Mrs. London, the more I found myself thinking: How on earth did Jack London think he deserved a woman like Charmian? As well as being his sparring partner (quite literally) and sharing many of his adventures, Charmian was the source of ideas for a lot of his novels, she was his editor – honing his dictated prose into the final polished article (‘The analogy sounds weak to me. I’ll rework it later.’) – and, at times, even his nursemaid.
Clearly, I can see why a woman would be attracted to Jack – for his genius as a writer, the way he had raised himself up from humble beginnings, his dashing looks and his adventurous spirit. As Charmian admits, ‘His brilliance and bravado mesmerized me, and I’ve been captive ever since.’ But, come on, he had affairs with other women, surrounded himself with a crowd of assorted hangers-on who drank and ate them out of house and home, got into debt and was often dismissive about Charmian’s contribution to his success. ‘He snorts. “I’m the writer. You’re the typist.”’ Furthermore he even stopped giving her enough ‘grand lolly’!
On the subject of ‘grand lolly’ (and you’re going to have to read the book or be a good guesser because I’m not going to tell you what that denotes), I really enjoyed how the author created a distinctive style of speech for Jack and Charmian, such as their nicknames for each other. I also loved the period atmosphere, the parties, the grand hotels, the cocktails, the celebrities of the age, the exotic locations.
When Jack and Charmian meet Harry Houdini and his wife, Bessie, the reader witnesses a new aspect to the Londons’ relationship and things get a whole lot more complicated. It’s revealing to see the two men through Charmian’s eyes: ‘The two of them emanate masculinity in such different ways. Jack’s street tough and adventuring, ever the underdog and fighter. Houdini radiates knowledge of things beyond knowing, a steely mastermind who influences people by controlling their thoughts.’
Incidentally, I absolutely fell in love with Houdini’s wife, Bessie, as imagined by the author. What a wonderfully funny, sympathetic and engaging character with her idiosyncratic style of speech and her sparkly exterior that disguises the sadness within. And Houdini? Well, he comes across as clever, perceptive, caring, self-confident and loyal. Do you know, I think perhaps a combination of Houdini and Jack might make the perfect man? (Leaving aside my husband, of course.)
Events take a tragic turn in the final third of the book and I found this part moving, heartbreaking but uplifting as well as the reader sees Charmian exert her independence.
I really loved The Secret Life of Mrs. London and found it a most assured and impressive debut. The author’s passion for her subject, and the extent of her research, shines through but this is also a very skilful piece of historical fiction writing. It’s made me want to read other books by Jack London. (Like a lot of people, I suspect, I’ve only ever read The Call of the Wild and White Fang – and both of those when I was at school, a few [ahem] years ago now.) It’s made me want to read Charmian’s biography of her husband and some of her own writing. Most of all, it’s made we want to read whatever Rebecca Rosenberg writes next.
By the way, there are fantastic photographs of Jack and Charmian on Rebecca’s website (links below).
I received a review copy courtesy of the author and Lake Union Publishing in return for an honest and unbiased review.
In three words: Compelling, spirited, engrossing
Try something similar…Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood (click here to read my review)
About the Author
California native, Rebecca Rosenberg lives on a lavender farm with her family in Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon, where Jack London wrote from his Beauty Ranch. Rebecca is a long-time student of Jack London’s works and an avid fan of his daring wife, Charmian London. The Secret Life of Mrs. London is her debut novel.
Rebecca and her husband, Gary, own the largest lavender product company in America, selling to 4000 resorts, spas and gift stores. The Rosenbergs believe in giving back to the Sonoma Community, supporting many causes through financial donations and board positions, including Worth Our Weight, an educational culinary program for at-risk children, YWCA shelter for abused women, Luther Burbank Performing Arts Center to provide performances for children, Sonoma Food Bank, Sonoma Boys and Girls Club, and the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home.
Connect with Rebecca