Before I say anything else about this book, I'd like to state for the record that I am definitely not a fan of 'chick lit'; anything with a pastel cover promising a stereotypical romantic storyline usually sends me running for the hills. So when a friend recommended this novel to me, I was initially unsure; but the 1950s setting and glowing reviews persuaded me to read on. I'm very glad I did.
'The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets' is a real treat - the literary equivalent of a huge slice of chocolate cake. It centres around Penelope, an enchanting but slightly awkward teenage girl growing up in a crumbling country manor in post-war England - and of course, ultimately, it's a love story. But to me, the plot is secondary to the beautiful writing and excellent characterisation. Eva Rice's characters are some of the most perfectly drawn I have ever encountered; even minor players in the story are depicted so exquisitely that they seem to leap off the page. Added to which, the protagonists are so eccentric and interesting that it's impossible not to care about them. The descriptions are equally brilliant - the book really brings the 1950s to life, and the settings (Penelope's grand house, her friend Charlotte's aunt's jumbled flat, decadent parties in London) are, without exception, vividly, entrancingly detailed. The dialogue sparkles with wit, vigour and intelligence; at several points I laughed out loud - and the last few chapters actually made me cry, which I very rarely do over a book.
The only criticism I have to make of this novel, and the reason I've given it four stars rather than five, is that the plot is completely predictable - it's obvious from the start what's going to happen, which makes the conclusion perhaps not as compelling as it might otherwise have been. The quality of the writing gives me the feeling that Rice is an incredibly accomplished author who deserves better than to be ranked amongst 'chick lit' writers. But if the predictability doesn't bother you (and it really shouldn't, because the book is good enough to overcome it), this is an absolutely delicious, highly enjoyable read.