I’ve just pressed the last click on my Kindle (hmmm, it’s not got quite the same ring as ‘turned the last page’, has it?) and finished ‘Something Dangerous’ by Penny Vincenzi. It’s a fabulous book. A proper family saga, that stretches from 1928 until after the Second World War. There’s a vivid host of characters and I got completely swept up in it – again, doing rather more reading than writing. I was intrigued to read a Vincenzi book, partly because she’s the mother of a friend of mine (Sophie Cornish, with whom I wrote the ‘Build A Business From Your Kitchen Table’ book) but also because she’s a successful – very – novelist, former journalist, and I think one sometimes hopes to be able to detect the magic formula that made it work for her.
One can’t, of course. Each writer is different, each reader is different. But there were lots of things about her book that I thought really worked (and, reader, if you think I’m gushing because of the connection, I’ll tell you now, if I thought it was rubbish, you wouldn’t even know I’d read it). The rich variety of characters, for one, and the way she slipped from writing from all their different points of view. This is VERY hard to do – to have all the different voices, and yet keep the book consistent and keep the reader attached. But she made it very fluid – I found it, oddly, much less disruptive than the current fashion for having alternate chapters for two central characters.
The attention to historical detail was brilliant – just a smattering, just enough for you to know she knew what she was talking about. The names of the fashionable designers, then, or the Society names (she had two Fellowes’s in there – Mrs Reginald Fellowes, a well-known hostess and Daisy Fellowes, a beauty), the clubs they went to, the details of the big events being played out on the world stage and how they infiltrated and infected the smallest of domestic concerns. Sensing how reliable this knowledge is, makes one very comfortable with the rest and gives the right context – a made-up successful author is very quickly believable when set alongside casual mention of Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, for example.
She uses a lot of dialogue, without doing huge tracts of ‘he said’, ‘she said’. These exchanges took me longer to get comfortable with, just because of the use of the period colloquialisms (a bit like reading dialect, which I personally always find difficult). But it was still the right thing for her to do, and it got one into the characters, and helped you recognise them as got further into the book, to feel almost intimately familiar with them. But they also became a brilliant plot device, as conversations would start and you wouldn’t immediately know what it was referring to and you have an enjoyable guessing game.
Vincenzi is an absolute master of setting up tension. I’ve not been on tenterhooks so many times within one book. Two characters will be racing against time in one way or another and because it’s such a big saga, with so many people, there’s just no telling how it will turn out. So many times I either sighed with relief; others, I wept.
And for me, this was a great book because it absolutely tackled a fascinating time in history. A time when women who lost their lovers and brothers to the horrors of the First World War, then found they had to send their sons to the same in the Second World War. I’ve read less around the subject of the latter war, and I was very moved by the descriptions of the bombings in London, the emotional tiredness everyone suffered just to keep going, the people who abhorred the war, the ones who loved it.
Oh, and terrific sex scenes, too.
I’m rather bereft it’s over now. But very exited because 1) there are two more books in the trilogy to read (idiotically, I’ve only just realised this) and 2) I’ve decided I’m going to ask her out to lunch and try to find out more about how she did it. I’ll keep you posted.
If you want to buy the book yourself, go here: Amazon.co.uk
Although you should probably not do as I did, and start with the first of the trilogy – No Angel.