A “long and complicated childhood” becomes a complicated adulthood for two families in Palmer’s entertaining sixth (The Golden Rule, 1998, etc.).
The paths of the Harding family and the Fox family cross in 1928, when Sybil Fox, widow, comes on as governess at the Harding country house in England. Though as different as “chalk and cheese,” Nettie Harding (the one daughter among three brothers) and Mary Fox (Sybil’s daughter) become best friends. As the dictates of class and melodrama would have it, Mary Fox falls in love with the eldest Harding brother, Godfrey (who has a dark secret), but she in turn is loved by his brother William. Nettie seduces the stable boy, Joshua, and, after they are caught in flagrante it seems pretty certain that Joshua will reappear at a most inconvenient time in Nettie’s future. Among the grown-ups, Sybil Fox seduces father Geoffry Harding, a political bigwig who spends most of his time in London with the mysterious Rafe Bartholomew (Churchill's closest confidante) rather than at home with wife Davina. Then, just as the misguided desires of the various Hardings and Foxes threaten to erupt, all becomes subsumed into a greater issue: WWII. The Harding boys go off to battle; Nettie marries a wealthy alcoholic, changes her name to Venetia, and offers sexual favors in return for political secrets; Sybil Fox leaves behind her “notebooks” and her bereaved daughter, Mary, who takes a job helping to crack the German code. The search for true love, the misalignment of loyalties, and ever-ready Chaos are the true engines of Palmer’s story, throughout whose second half many bombs are dropped—by war, by friends, by family—that shatter illusions and unearth astonishing numbers of secrets in the lives of all.
Passion-plagued characters, an adverb for every emotion, and an addictive novel-within-a-novel come together for something akin to a satisfying mug of ale.