Published: 13 May 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
A courageous young noblewoman risks her life to hide French resistance fighters; seventy years later, her granddaughter visits the family’s abandoned chateau and uncovers shocking secrets from the past. Gisèle Duchant guards a secret that could cost her life. Tunnels snake through the hill under her family’s medieval chateau in Normandy. Now, with Hitler’s army bearing down, her brother and several friends are hiding in the tunnels, resisting the German occupation of France.
But when German soldiers take over the family’s château, Gisèle is forced to host them as well—while harboring the resistance fighters right below their feet. Taking in a Jewish friend’s baby, she convinces the Nazis that it is her child, ultimately risking everything for the future of the child. When the German officers begin to suspect her deception, an unlikely hero rescues both her and the child.
A present day story weaves through the past one as Chloe Sauver, Gisèle’s granddaughter, arrives in Normandy. After calling off her engagement with a political candidate, Chloe pays a visit to the chateau to escape publicity and work with a documentary filmmaker, Riley, who has uncovered a fascinating story about Jews serving in Hitler’s army.
Riley wants to research Chloe’s family history and the lives that were saved in the tunnels under their house in Normandy. Chloe is floored—her family isn’t Jewish, for one thing, and she doesn’t know anything about tunnels or the history of the house. But as she begins to explore the dark and winding passageways beneath the chateau, nothing can prepare her for the shock of what she and Riley discover…
Chateau of Secrets tells the story of Gisele Duchant, the daughter of a nobleman, who is trapped in France during the Second World War when her family’s chateau is occupied by the Nazis. Despite the presence of the Germans, Gisele continues to hide her brother, Michel, and his fellow resistance fighters in the tunnels below the chateau. At the same time, Gisele has rescued her Jewish best friend’s baby girl, and is raising her as her own daughter while lying to the Nazis about her past. As Gisele’s web of lies becomes ever more complex, her life becomes increasingly dangerous but she finds succour in the most unexpected places.
In the present, Gisele’s granddaughter, Chloe, is about to marry one of Virginia’s leading politicians when she discovers he’s been having an affair and only chose to marry her because she fit the criteria of the perfect governor’s wife. A devastated Chloe flees to France where she has been asked to participate in a documentary about her grandmother’s activities during the war. However, Chloe discovers the filmmaker, Riley, has been less than truthful about the subject of his documentary and she is determined to get to the bottom of her family’s secrets even if it means tarnishing their name forever.
The past-present threads of Chateau of Secrets are woven seamlessly together with Chloe’s first person point of view alternating with Gisele’s third person narrative which helps to keep their voices distinctive. Gisele’s story unfolds over a number of years within her chapters, but we learn far more than Chloe ever does which is a good thing as the span of seventy years means Chloe has to rely on the memories of those who are too traumatised by the past to be able to talk much about it.
Needless to say the events of Gisele’s life are far more interesting than her granddaughter’s, however I never felt that frisson of suspense or any real sense of danger from the Germans. The writing is beautiful and the setting is totally believable but I felt the characters were too emotionally distant for me to be able care much about them. The book also has strong religious overtones throughout which didn’t really bother me until the end of the book where the plot began to rely too heavily on the old adage of everything will be okay because God will save them.
The most interesting aspect of the history in this novel was the revelation that many Jews were blackmailed into joining the German army in order to protect their loved ones who were often betrayed anyway. I had no idea this had really happened and I was intrigued by the author’s note at the end which spoke of it in more detail. I always get annoyed at books set in World War II which portray all Germans as evil Nazis with no concern for those who had no choice so my compliments to the author for not doing that. The character of Josef Milch is a fascinating one and I just wish the author had chosen to feature him a little more than he was because it would’ve made his growing connection to Gisele far more believable.
Chloe’s section of the book suffers because the issues of her broken engagement seem trivial in comparison to the life and death problems faced by Gisele, however the truth about her grandmother does give her the courage to re-examine her own goals. However, her budding romance with Riley is a complete dud as it is totally devoid of passion.
Chateau of Secrets has some interesting themes but the author barely touches the surface of most of them and Chloe’s presence was totally unnecessary as Gisele and Josef’s story was intriguing enough to fill more than one book.