Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book review: The Secret Life of Violet Grant, by Beatriz Williams

This smashing summer read introduces two ambitious career women living fifty years apart: Violet Schuyler Grant, an American atomic physicist in WWI-era Oxford and Berlin; and her great-niece, Vivian Schuyler, who defies her posh family to work at a magazine in 1960s Manhattan. While Violet’s courage, drive, and vulnerability make her a worthy heroine, Vivian’s cheeky and whip-smart voice steals the show.

The younger Schuyler gets caught up in a tantalizing mystery when a shabby old valise addressed to Violet shows up in her mail. Vivian also finds romance – a complicated one – with “Doctor Paul,” the dreamy surgeon she meets at the post office. Rumored to have murdered her husband and run off with her lover during the Great War, Violet hasn’t been mentioned chez Schuyler for decades, so Vivian is startled to learn of her existence – even more so when she pries the suitcase open and reads what’s inside.

As Vivian digs into her shadowy relative’s life, with the hopes of writing a dishy story that will be her big break, Violet’s tale of her disastrous marriage and risky affair with her husband’s former student unfolds in parallel. Brilliant but inexperienced with men, Violet is flattered by the attention of her older mentor, Dr. Walter Grant, whom she weds. Her dismay and fear are palpable when she discovers his controlling nature and infidelity.

Williams confidently re-creates both New York in the freewheeling ‘60s and the growing tension of prewar Europe, and she amps up the suspense as Violet’s situation gets desperate. Vivian’s commendable loyalty to her uber-rich friend Gogo adds interest, but the novel’s best part is simply watching the fabulous and always fashionably dressed Vivs in action. By the time she daringly acknowledges the plot’s big coincidence, she already has readers eating out of her hand. It satisfies on many levels, and it’s also immense fun.

The Secret Life of Violet Grant was published in June by Putnam in hardcover (436pp, $26.95 / Can$31.00).  This review first appeared in August's Historical Novels Review.  I loved the author's first book, Overseas, and thought this one was great as well, though the style is somewhat different.

10 comments:

  1. I loved this one too! Especially the cheekiness! Glad you liked it as well. I haven't read any of the author's previous work. Isn't it all contemporary?

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    1. I remember your review - Vivian's narrative voice was so much fun! Her first novel Overseas is part historical (WWI) and part contemporary, and A Hundred Summers, which I haven't read yet, is set in 1938. She also writes historical romances under the name Juliana Gray.

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  2. Anonymous4:52 PM

    I too thought the protagonists, esp. Vivian, had found their voices. That Dr. Grant was one creepy creepy guy.

    Sarah OL

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    1. Totally agree on Dr. Grant.

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  3. Making a note of both books. Sounds very good. I like the telling of two stories in different time frames.

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    1. So do I - and this one's different from the usual since both time frames are historical.

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    2. Anonymous3:36 PM

      1964 - 2014, so it just meets the 50 year criteria!

      BTW, did you pick up any good books?

      Sarah OL

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    3. A few! I'll have to do a post about them once I've gotten a little more organized.

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  4. Wonderful review -- you make me want to give this one a try again!

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    1. Cool - the '60s sections were my favorite part, if that's not obvious!

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