Secrets of a Charmed Life

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9780451419927: Secrets of a Charmed Life

The author of A Bridge Across the Ocean journeys from the present day to World War II England, as two sisters are separated by the chaos of wartime...

Current day, Oxford, England.
Young American scholar Kendra Van Zant, eager to pursue her vision of a perfect life, interviews Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets about the war that she has kept for decades...beginning with who she really is. What Kendra receives from Isabel is both a gift and a burden—one that will test her convictions and her heart.

1940s, England. As Hitler wages an unprecedented war against London’s civilian population, hundreds of thousands of children are evacuated to foster homes in the rural countryside. But even as fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, Emmy’s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia’s profound need for her sister’s presence. Acting at cross purposes just as the Luftwaffe rains down its terrible destruction, the sisters are cruelly separated, and their lives are transformed...

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About the Author:

Susan Meissner is a former managing editor of a weekly newspaper and an award-winning columnist. She is the award-winning author of A Bridge Across the Ocean, Secrets of a Charmed Life, A Fall of Marigolds, and Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, among other novels.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Praise for the Novels of Susan Meissner

OTHER NOVELS BY SUSAN MEISSNER

NEW AMERICAN LIBRARY

Part One

One

The Cotswolds, England

THE English cottage, bramble hedged and golden stoned, looks as timeless as a fairy tale except for the bobbing Mylar balloons tied to the front gate. Ivy scampers childlike across the house’s walls—all the way to the gabled windows on the second story—and then is tamed to civil edges around the paned windows. Easter-hued hollyhocks stand in stately rows beneath the sills. As I pull up onto the driveway, the crunching of tires on gravel sounds like applause, which is fitting since the woman I am to interview is celebrating her ninety-third birthday. I set the brake on the borrowed car and reach for my messenger bag on the seat next to me. I step out of the vehicle and into the postcard charm of April in the Cotswolds. I’m not expecting to be invited to stay for the day’s festivities but I hope I will be just the same. I’ve come to adore the way the British celebrate a happy occasion in the afternoon.

Isabel MacFarland is a stranger to me, though I’ve been told that I’ve surely walked past her watercolors for sale in Oxford gift shops. I’ve yet to even hear her voice. She agreed by way of one of my professors to let me interview her about her experience as a survivor of the London Blitz, and only because the first person I had arranged to speak with had died in her sleep at an assisted-living facility in Banbury. Today happened to be the time that worked best for both of us while still allowing me to meet my deadline, take my finals, grudgingly say good-bye to Oxford and my studies abroad, and return to California.

I get out of the car and silently congratulate myself for arriving safely in the village of Stow-on-the-Wold and without having ruined anyone else’s day in the process. In the four months I’ve been a visiting student at Oxford’s Keble College, I’ve borrowed this car three times before today: once to see whether I should dare try it a second time, then again to prepare myself for the third time, and the most recent to drive my parents and sister out to Warwick Castle and Stratford-upon-Avon when they came to visit me at midterm. Statistically, I’m not owed any kudos for having gotten here in one piece. Apparently a Yank’s first few experiences driving on the wrong side of the road are actually her safest. It’s after a dozen trips behind the wheel that she becomes dangerous. Lets down her guard. Forgets where she is. That’s when she’ll make a fatal turn into oncoming traffic; when her senses have been dulled by familiarity.

Today’s outing, the fourth time I’ve driven a car in England, is well below the multiple experience mark, and I will likely not drive again before the term ends. I wouldn’t necessarily have needed to drive today, as there’s a train station in nearby Moreton-in-Marsh, but there’s also a five-mile walk on narrow country roads between the two villages, with an occasional bus making the rounds. Penelope, my dorm mate and a British national from Manchester, who has had the guts to repeatedly loan me her car, insisted I take it.

I stop for a moment outside the car and breathe the scents of grass and sky and dew—refreshing after weeks of city exhaust. All around me are velvety fields quilted by clumps of trees and scattered dwellings oozing storybook quaintness. Some of the nearby roofs are thatched, some not, but all bear exterior walls of golden-hued stone that look as though they would taste like butterscotch if you licked them. A figure appears at an arched front door that is festooned with climbing roses. The woman is wiping her hands on a towel and smiling at me. Her graying hair is stylishly cut with one side longer than the other. I am guessing she is Isabel MacFarland’s live-in caretaker and housekeeper, Beryl Avery, and the woman who gave me directions.

“You found us!” she calls out to me.

I shut the door on Penelope’s aging Austin-Morris. “Your directions were perfect. Okay if I park here?”

“Yes, that’s fine. Come on in.”

The balloons are pogo-sticking this way and that as I open the gate. One of the balloons attempts to attach itself to the strap of my bag as I pass. I gently nudge it away.

Mrs. Avery holds the front door open for me—it is painted an enameled cherry red. “I’m so glad you made it. Beryl Avery. Please call me Beryl.” She thrusts her free hand toward me as I step inside.

“Kendra Van Zant. Thanks so much for letting me come, especially when you have so much going on later today. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”

Beryl shuts the door behind us. I am guessing she is in her late sixties. She smells like cake and cream and other sweet things. A smudge of flour dusts one side of her jawbone.

“It’s no trouble,” she says brightly. “I’m happy you’re here. Auntie doesn’t talk much about her experience during the war and we all wish she would, you know. When anyone else asks about it, she shoos the question away as if no one could possibly be interested in anything that happened so long ago. But of course we are interested. Terribly so, considering what happened to her. It’s such a nice surprise she said yes to you.”

I don’t know what to say to this because it’s a surprise to me, too, that the old woman said yes. Professor Briswell told me Mrs. MacFarland, a noted local artist and friend of his late mother, is known to have been bombed out of her home during the Blitz, but also that she never speaks about it.

“I would ask her why she said yes if I weren’t afraid I’d jinx it for you and she’d change her mind,” Beryl continues.

I’m about to ask why Mrs. MacFarland has been so reluctant to talk about the war so that I will know which questions to avoid, but Beryl fills the tiny space of silence before I can.

“I must tell you, though, that she seems a little lost in thought today. You might need to give her some extra time to answer your questions. It’s probably all the hullabaloo with the party and all.”

“Is she still okay that I am coming today?”

Beryl cocks her head. “I think so. Hard to say if ‘okay’ is the right word. Auntie isn’t one to be overly demonstrative. I’d say she’s content regarding your being here. I think she’s more worried about the party this afternoon. She didn’t want a fuss and I’m afraid that’s exactly what she’s getting. No one wanted to listen to me when I said she didn’t want a big to-do.”

We move out of the narrow entryway into a sitting room that looks as cozy and inviting as one of Tolkien’s hobbit holes. A fat, fern-green couch and its matching love seat are situated in the middle of the room, while glass-topped tables laden with books and jonquils in vases separate them. Persian rugs cover the wood floor. A tea cart sits in one corner, a curio cabinet in another, and an L-shaped bookshelf in a third. Enchanting watercolors of young girls holding polka-dot umbrellas line the walls.

“Are the paintings Mrs. MacFarland’s?” I ask.

“They are,” Beryl replies. “They’re all over the house. She’s quite an accomplished artist, but you probably already know that. The Umbrella Girls are her trademark. Her arthritis is too bad now for painting. She had to stop a while back.” Beryl sighs. “That was a hard day. She’s had too many hard days, if you ask me. Far too many.” The woman shakes her head slightly as if to dislodge the weight of the anguish she has observed. “Why don’t you have a seat here on the sofa and I’ll go fetch her?”

Beryl leaves the room and I settle onto the love seat, moving a few of the tightly stuffed throw pillows from behind my back. I can hear voices from other areas of the house now, and laughter in the back garden. A child squeals. Another one yells that it’s his turn to have a go. A more calming adult voice, grandmotherly in tone, instructs someone named Timmy to share the glider with another someone named Garth or he’ll be sent inside.

I pull my voice recorder from my bag and set it on the table in front of me, hoping Isabel won’t mind if I record our conversation. I look over the questions on my notepad and decide I will let her answers guide me. I don’t want to sabotage the interview by asking too much too soon. As I pull out a mechanical pencil, I hear the sound of shuffling feet.

“I’m fine, Beryl,” a voice says, low toned and honeyed with age. “The tea is ready?”

“Oh yes. The tray’s all set,” Beryl says from the hallway, but out of my view.

“Lovely. You can bring it straight in.”

“And your medicine?”

“Just the tea, thank you.”

“But you didn’t take it yesterday, either.”

“Now, don’t fuss, Beryl.”

Isabel MacFarland steps into the room. She is a wisp of tissue-thin skin, weightless white hair, and fragile-looking bones. She is impeccably dressed, however, in a lavender skirt that reaches to her knees and a creamy white blouse with satin-covered buttons. Black ballet flats embrace her slender feet. A gold necklace rings her neck. Her nails are polished a shimmery pale pink and her cottony hair is swept up in the back with a comb of mother-of-pearl. She carries a fabric-wrapped rectangle, book shaped and tied with a ribbon.

I rise from my seat to see if I might need to assist her.

“Miss Van Zant. How very nice to meet you.” Her English accent is not like Beryl’s. There is something about it that seems stretched.

“Can I help you?” I take a few steps forward.

“No. Thank you, though. Please sit.”

I return to the love seat and she lowers herself slowly to the sofa across from me. “Thank you so much for agreeing to see me,” I say. “And on your birthday, too.”

She waves away my gratitude. “It’s just another day.”

Beryl appears at the doorway with a tea tray. “Ninety-three is not just another day, Auntie.”

Isabel MacFarland smiles as if she has just thought of something funny. Beryl sets the tray down and hands Mrs. MacFarland her cup, already creamed and sugared. Then she hands a cup to me and I add a teaspoon of sugar to it. The stirring of a silver spoon in an English china teacup is one of the sounds I will miss most when I head back to the United States.

“Thank you, Beryl,” Mrs. MacFarland says. “You can just leave the tray. And can you be a dear and close the door so that we aren’t in anyone’s way?”

Beryl glances from me to Mrs. MacFarland with an unmistakably disappointed expression on her face. “Of course,” she says with feigned brightness. She heads for the door and looks back at us with a polite smile that surely takes effort. She shuts the door softly behind her.

“I think she was hoping she could stay,” I venture.

“Beryl is a sweet companion and I could not live here on my own without her, but I’d rather have the freedom to say whatever I want, if that’s all right with you.”

I am not prepared for such candor. “Um. Of course.”

“When you get to be my age, your physical frailties cause people to think other things about you are frail as well, including your ability to make your own decisions. It’s my decision to meet with you today. And my decision to say what I will about what happened during the war. I don’t need or want dear Beryl patting my hand or telling me I’m not properly addressing your questions. May I call you Kendra?”

“Yes. Yes, of course.”

Mrs. MacFarland sips from her cup and then sits back against the couch. “And you will call me Isabel. So how are you enjoying your studies at Oxford, Kendra?”

Her interest in my life has an amazingly calming effect. “I will leave here kicking and screaming at the end of next month. I’ve loved every minute of it. There’s so much history compacted into one place. It’s intoxicating.” I suppose I have spoken like a true history major.

“And is there no history where you are from?”

“There is. It’s just different, I guess. Not quite so ancient. Where I’m from, the oldest building isn’t even two hundred years old. It’s just an ordinary house.”

She smiles at me. “I’ve come to appreciate ordinary houses.”

I redden just a bit. “That’s not to say your house isn’t charming, Mrs. MacFarland. Your home is beautiful. Has it been in your family a long time?”

“Just Isabel, please. And yes, you could say that it’s been in my family for a very long time. You are a history major, then?”

I nod my head as I sip from my cup.

“And what is it about history that interests you?”

I’ve never understood why I am routinely asked why history interests me, as though the subject has no appeal to people who didn’t major in it. All during my last year of high school when well-meaning adults and even other students asked what I would be majoring in and I answered them, the next question was invariably a request to explain the reason why. I still get asked three years later.

“How can a person not be interested in history?” I crack a smile so she won’t take offense. But really, how can someone who survived the London Blitz not see the significance of an appreciation of history? The writer Michael Crichton said, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”

Isabel finds my question back to her amusing. “Ah, but what is history? Is it a record of what happened or rather our interpretation of what happened?”

“I think it’s both,” I answer. “It has to be both. What good is remembering an event if you don’t remember how it made you feel. How it impacted others. How it made them feel. You would learn nothing and neither would anyone else.”

Isabel’s mouth straightens into a thin, hard line and I am wondering whether I offended her and just ruined my last chance at an interview.

But then Isabel inhales deeply and I see that she is not angry with me. “You are absolutely right, my dear. Absolutely right.” She takes another sip of tea and her mouth lingers on the rim of her cup. For a moment she seems to be very far away, lost in a memory—an old and aching place of remembrance. Then she returns the cup to its saucer and it makes a gentle scraping sound. “So, what will you do when you return to the States, Kendra?”

“Well, I’ve another year at USC and then I’m hoping to head straight to grad school,” I answer quickly, eager to be done with pleasantries and get to the reason I am here. “I plan to get my doctorate in history and teach at the college level.”

“A young woman with plans. And how old are you, dear?”

I can’t help but bristle. The only time a person asks how old I am is when they think the answer is somehow relevant to him or her. It usually never is.

“You don’t have to tell me, of course. I was just wondering,” she adds.

“I’m twenty-one.”

“It bothers you that I asked.”

“Not really. It just surprises me when people ask. I don’t know why it should matter.”

“But that is precisely why it does bother you. I felt the same way once. People treat you differently when they think you are too young to know what you want.”

The bristling gives way to a slow sense of kinship. “Yes, they do.”

“I understand completely. You are the oldest in your family?”

“I have a sister who’s four years younger.”

“A sister. Just the one?”

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Descrizione libro Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. The author of A Bridge Across the Ocean journeys from the present day to World War II England, as two sisters are separated by the chaos of wartime. Current day, Oxford, England. Young American scholar Kendra Van Zant, eager to pursue her vision of a perfect life, interviews Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets about the war that she has kept for decades.beginning with who she really is. What Kendra receives from Isabel is both a gift and a burden--one that will test her convictions and her heart. 1940s, England. As Hitler wages an unprecedented war against London s civilian population, hundreds of thousands of children are evacuated to foster homes in the rural countryside. But even as fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, Emmy s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia s profound need for her sister s presence. Acting at cross purposes just as the Luftwaffe rains down its terrible destruction, the sisters are cruelly separated, and their lives are transformed. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780451419927

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Descrizione libro Berkley Books 2/3/2015, 2015. Paperback or Softback. Condizione libro: New. Secrets of a Charmed Life. Book. Codice libro della libreria BBS-9780451419927

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Descrizione libro Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. The author of A Bridge Across the Ocean journeys from the present day to World War II England, as two sisters are separated by the chaos of wartime. Current day, Oxford, England. Young American scholar Kendra Van Zant, eager to pursue her vision of a perfect life, interviews Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets about the war that she has kept for decades.beginning with who she really is. What Kendra receives from Isabel is both a gift and a burden--one that will test her convictions and her heart. 1940s, England. As Hitler wages an unprecedented war against London s civilian population, hundreds of thousands of children are evacuated to foster homes in the rural countryside. But even as fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, Emmy s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia s profound need for her sister s presence. Acting at cross purposes just as the Luftwaffe rains down its terrible destruction, the sisters are cruelly separated, and their lives are transformed. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780451419927

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Descrizione libro Softcover. Condizione libro: New. The author of A Fall of Marigolds journeys from the present day to World War II England, as two sisters are separated by the chaos of wartime .She stood at a crossroads, half-aware that her choice would send her down a path from which there could be no turning back. But instead of two choices, she saw only onebecause it was all she really wanted to seeCurrent day, Oxford, England. Young American scholar Kendra Van Zant, eager to pursue her vision of a perfect life, interviews Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets about the war that she has kept for decades.beginning with who she really is. What Kendra receives from Isabel is both a gift and a burden--one that will test her convictions and her heart.1940s, England. As Hitler wages an unprecedented war against London’s civilian population, hundreds of thousands of children are evacuated to foster homes in the rural countryside. But even as fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, Emmy’s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia’s profound need for her sister’s presence. Acting at cross purposes just as the Luftwaffe rains down its terrible destruction, the sisters are cruelly separated, and their lives are transformed. Codice libro della libreria BAA-B-3273499

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