In 1943, eighteen-year-old Ceci Corvin is working in her father’s bakery during the Italian occupation of her hometown in south France when she learns a group of Jewish refugees will be billeted there. The Corvins decide to rent the flat above the bakery to a Jewish couple, Daniel and Myriam Reiss, who have suffered appallingly during the war.
Unexpectedly, Ceci’s friendship for the fragile Myriam turns into romance but she is all too aware of the dangers of forbidden love in a small town. As the Italian alliance with Nazi Germany falls apart, the Jewish inhabitants of the town are suddenly faced with extreme danger and the only chance for escape is across the hazardous mountains.
Fifty years later, Annie Picot travels to Paris to track down her long-lost grandmother and knowing there isn’t much time left, Ceci takes her granddaughter on a journey back to Saint-Antoine where she reveals the truth about her past.
The Secrets Between Us is Laura Madeleine’s third book and it is another spellbinding journey from an author who is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. In my reviews of Madeleine’s previous books, The Confectioner’s Tale and Where The Wild Cherries Grow, I spoke about how she was a very sensual writer and I’m pleased to say she continues this trend in her third offering. Since Ceci’s family own a bakery, you anticipate all sorts of mouth-watering descriptions of cakes and other baked goods, however the Second World War means there is rationing in force. Ceci’s family have to come up with clever ways of finding scarce ingredients or making use of what they have available to keep their business running.
While food had always been an important part of Madeleine’s novels, The Secrets Between Us differs a little in that it takes outside into the natural world and teaches about the plants and herbs we can eat. Ceci knows the mountains around her town better than anyone else and it is the perfect place for her to spend time alone with Myriam. As Ceci teaches Myriam about the different flavours of the plants, it often acts as a metaphor for their relationship which grows the more they are together. When Myriam first arrives in Saint-Antoine she is almost like a shadow as she fears so much but she comes alive when she is with Ceci in the mountains.
The relationship between Ceci and Myriam is beautifully described as Ceci learns how to explore these new feelings of love that bubble under the surface every time she sees Myriam. Of course, Myriam is married but Madeleine is quick to reveal the Reiss couple are in an open relationship and Daniel is the only other one who knows about the burgeoning romance. While everything may look rosy in Ceci’s world, complications arise when Myriam discovers she is carrying Daniel’s child and it causes her to fall into a state of melancholia as starts to feel trapped. However, there are worse problems on the horizon when Italy breaks with Germany and the Jewish refugees are suddenly in grave danger when the Italian troops withdraw from Saint-Antoine.
As the novel progresses, we get to know many of the Jews as they settle in Saint-Antoine and while they are not free to come and go as they please, they are relatively safe in the town as long as they check in with the Italians each day. Once the Italians withdraw, they are at the mercy of the approaching Nazis and they are forced to decide whether to take their chances with the Germans or flee across the mountains. A heavily pregnant Myriam and Daniel decide to take their chances on the mountains and it inevitably leads to tragedy. Madeleine draws the reader in so successfully, you feel like these people really are your friends and you worry about their safety while deploring the futility of it all.
Of course, the story is dual in nature so the 1943 chapters are intermixed with what’s happening in 1993 as the older Ceci reveals her story to her granddaughter. The return to Saint-Antoine is an emotional one and it takes a while for the truth about the past to be revealed so patience is required before the endgame is reached. However, I’m afraid I found the 1993 narrative was less interesting than its 1943 counterpart, mainly because Annie is not as good a character as her grandmother and the war chapters are far more vivid. As the story reached its climax, you will run through the gamut of emotions as Ceci finally learns what happened to her beloved Myriam.