“‘Well, hello,’ Goldie said. The words sounded friendly enough, but Anna saw the range of emotions flash across her grandmother’s face – joy followed by a recollection of the chill between them, followed by wariness. She assessed Anna, then opened the door wider.”
Anna, a comic book artist in Memphis, has been summoned by her grandmother, Goldie, to New York. She wants Anna to drive her (in her Rolls-Royce no less) to San Francisco to return some exquisite Japanese art to an old friend. Before this, Anna and Goldie hadn’t spoken for five years, mostly because she disapproved of Anna’s husband Ford who had died of leukemia a few years ago. And the problem is that Goldie kind of was right – Ford and Anna were too different, and they might not have worked out.
“No, it wasn’t only Ford’s death that continued to torment her; it was all the ugliness that they’d endured before he died as well. Even when was still healthy, their relationship had troubled them. Weekends, when should have been fun, had devolved into drawn-out disagreements over how best to allocate their precious time. Should they go out and listen to jazz (Ford’s inclination) or stay home and eat popcorn while watching DVDs (Anna’s)? Whatever they decided led to a clash between one person’s guilt and the other’s resentment. Even if your marriage didn’t receive a catastrophic diagnosis, was that a way to spend your life? And then, if it did, things got worse.”
Anna knows that she needs to move on. But she can’t. She still wears Ford’s wedding ring, but not her own. She’s concerned about the complications that come with romance – in her case, the fear of losing someone she loves again. So she’s stuck. And she needs a change, and that comes with the roadtrip.
“She needed a change. The thought of seeing Goldie again raised her anxiety in every way, but at the same time she suddenly felt an enormous sense of relief and possibility.”
Of course one of the first things that Goldie says to her is: “You didn’t get fat.” Ouch.
So anyway, this art of Goldie’s, which Anna and her sister Sadie used to call ‘The Nightingale Palace’, is a wood-bound book of pictures, presented to a man who had been on Admiral Perry’s expedition that forced open trade routes to Japan. The prints include Hiroshige landscapes, often with glimpses of Mt Fuji and Kunisada prints of domestic scenes of men and women, probably similar to those pictured here. Anna remembers gazing at the pictures as a child, and this early exposure to the art might have inspired her love of storytelling and illustration.
The art is also linked to Goldie’s mysterious past, and more is revealed in flashbacks as the two women make their way across the country. Goldie moves to San Francisco from Memphis in 1940. She finds a job as a salesgirl at the Feld’s department store, quickly becoming an excellent seller:
“Goldie wasn’t a beauty in the way that film stars of the day were beautiful, with their fair complexions, angelic smiles, and easy grace. Goldie had olive skin, thick brown hair, and dark circles around her deep-set eyes that gave her the haunted look of a waif in a silent movie. Her body, though, was elegant and curvy, her eyes bright, her expression quick, her mouth full of sultry charm. The thing about Goldie that most impressed her customers at Feld’s, however, was the fact that she had an almost magical way with clothes. No matter what she put on, it looked like something out of Harper’s Bazaar. The simplest shirt or the slimmest, plainest skirt had the look of Paris couture as soon as she slid them onto her body. The wealthy San Francisco matrons who shopped in the store recognized that quality in Goldie and wanted it for themselves. During her first week, posted in millinery, she sold seventeen hats.”
She eventually becomes good friends with Mayumi Nakamura, who does window displays at Feld’s and whose father Hiroshi is creating the iconic Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. She also meets Henry, Mayumi’s older brother, who imports artwork from around the world.
Essentially, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace is a story of tough love, of family relationships, a road trip tale. It took me a while to warm up to the characters, as it starts out on a bit of a melancholic note (young widow), and with some awkward head butting (stubborn grandmother, equally stubborn granddaughter). But the flashbacks of Goldie’s time in San Francisco, her friendship with Mayumi, her beginning to understand what it’s like to be Japanese in the US after Pearl Harbor, and most of all, her relationship with her granddaughter, all this grows on you, and the story just blossoms. All the way until that somewhat unexpected ending. Luckily it was the kind of ending that puts a smile on a reader’s face.
The Secret of the Nightingale Palace isn’t typically the kind of book that would attract me, but I’m glad I read this lovely book.
A great read.
Dana Sachs is the author of the novel If You Lived Here and two books of nonfiction, The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam and The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, she lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with her husband and two sons.
I received this book for review from TLC Book Tours
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the stops on the tour!
Tuesday, February 19th: Mrs. Q: Book Addict
Wednesday, February 20th: Book Dilettante
Thursday, February 21st: Jo-Jo Loves to Read!
Monday, February 25th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Tuesday, February 26th: Lisa’s Yarns
Wednesday, February 27th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Thursday, February 28th: Books in the City
Monday, March 4th: Olduvai Reads
Tuesday, March 5th: A Patchwork of Books
Wednesday, March 6th: Queen of All She Reads
Thursday, March 7th: BookNAround
Friday, March 8th: Dreaming in Books
Monday, March 11th: Great Imaginations