Monday, February 19, 2018

Book review: The Secret Life of Mrs. London, by Rebecca Rosenberg

Historical fiction readers know it’s no picnic being a famous author’s wife. These admirable women have endured their husbands’ egos, partying, and infidelity, supported them through illness, and sacrificed their own writing ambitions in their favor.

All of these were true of Jack London’s second wife, Charmian Kittredge London, yet she may be the least known of these heroines today. As such, biographical articles revealing the true history of her life and the couple’s partnership come as a surprise. A well-educated heiress and travel writer who personified the early 20th-century “New Woman,” she was hardly a shrinking violet. And still her importance in his life is overlooked because, as London’s muse, spouse, and editor, she held roles that were kept in his shadow.

Rosenberg’s strong debut, the first novel to focus on this deserving subject, presents Charmian in her element. An unapologetically bold and sexually liberated woman, Charmian loves her adventurous husband but chafes at settling for less than she deserves.

It opens at their extensive ranch home among the redwoods in Sonoma Valley, California, in 1915. President Wilson is weighing his options for entering WWI, and against this politically troubled historical backdrop, Charmian is doing her best to support her husband’s career: “Jack’s golden rule: write a thousand words a day. And my job is to keep him to it.” And if she can work in a “grand lolly” afterwards that will satisfy them both, and hopefully give her a child, so much the better.

However, their sex life is stalling, their new home’s construction is a money pit, and he discourages her writing efforts. Despite being a dedicated Socialist, he also gets upset when she points out the contradiction between his longtime beliefs and his desires to expand their land.

author Rebecca Rosenberg
While Jack encourages her flirtations, she quickly gets in over her head after she participates in an on-stage magic show by the charismatic Great Houdini – and forms an unlikely friendship with his wife, Bess, whose quirkiness and childlike looks belie a deeper wisdom. Depictions of Charmian’s complicated relationships with both Houdinis are a highlight of the book. The "Magic Man" himself has an electrifying presence, one to which Charmian isn’t immune.

Her passionate quest for love and purpose unfolds against the stirrings of war, Houdini’s death-defying escapes, and the surprising intersection between them (Houdini’s unique contributions to the war effort are fascinating, yet little-known).

Through her dynamic narrative, Charmian is presented as a flawed and fascinating character whose eventful life holds our attention. Her phrasings are occasionally clichéd (“…shatters my heart into a million tiny pieces”), but she comes across as a force of nature with an original outlook on her world.

From the sun-drenched waters of Hawaii to the skyscrapers of the nation’s capital, the novel explores the risks and secret joys of following one’s heart.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London was published on January 30 by Lake Union/Amazon (348pp). View the other stops on the blog tour.


  1. Loved your review, Sarah! Thanks so much for hosting Rebecca's blog tour. I am thrilled that you enjoyed the read as much as I did!

    HF Virtual Book Tours

    1. Thanks, Amy! I was glad to have the opportunity to read this one.

  2. Very nice, Sarah! Sounds like a terrific book!

    1. I definitely enjoyed it and am wondering why I'd never heard of the protagonist before picking it up. Thanks, Alana!

  3. Thank you for a great review Sarah! I really appreciate it!

    1. My pleasure, Rebecca, I enjoyed it very much!