I really can’t believe I’ve never read a book by Gill Paul before. They’re all on my kindle – honestly, they are – and Gill has been a friend for a while now and one of my very favourite book party companions, but until reading this gorgeous book I had absolutely no idea that she was such a magnificent storyteller and writer. The Secret Wife was published by Avon on 25th August – available for kindle (just 99p at the moment) and in paperback – and I’ve been looking forward to it so very much since Gill first shared the bare bones of the story. I’m a massive fan of any books – well, just about any! – focusing on Russia and the Romanovs, and it was a personal dream fulfilled when I visited St Petersburg a few years ago and saw for myself the Peterhof Palace, the Hermitage and Winter Palace, and the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, and saw their restored opulence for myself.
I have a lovely guest post from Gill – a quite personal one, with tips for the shy. Let me share that, then I’ll tell you more about this wonderful book…
I was so shy as a child that I used to hide behind my mother’s back while she talked to friends, trying to scrunch myself into as small a space as possible. In class I hunched over, head down, trying to avoid the teacher’s attention and if she asked me a question my throat seized up, cheeks glowed scarlet, and no words came out.
The fear of all shy people is that observers will judge and think badly of them; that they’ll notice all the tiny failings we ourselves are well aware of. So what was I thinking of going into a career in which I write down my thoughts and imaginings in books and have them published for the whole world to judge? And what’s more, I did so in an era when authors have to master social media skills and grab every opportunity they can to push their own book forwards. Madness, indeed.
I’m not as bad as I used to be. If you met me at a social event you’d probably never guess that there’s a constant monologue in my head: “Agh, do you think she’ll notice I just dribbled?” “Oh god, my dress is the ugliest in the room” “Why did I say something so inane?” This will sound incomprehensible to those who are not shy. It’s a deeply unattractive, self-centred trait.
Over the years I’ve found a few ways to shut off that self-critical tinnitus. Alcohol helps on the night but only delays the self-berating till the following morning. Finding another shy person to chat to (someone standing on the edge, hesitant about joining in) is a useful tip. But the one that works best for me, though, is pretending not to be shy.
So here is my faker’s guide for shy people trying to promote their novels:
• It really helped me to do a public speaking course. I learned lots of little tips regarding breathing and posture, as well as where to look while you are speaking. My coach said when I started I kept clutching my face, as if trying to hide behind my hands, but now I keep them firmly glued to my sides.
• Give your publicist lots to work with. Mine, Jo Marino, is amazing. We sit down and brainstorm ideas for press articles and events we can tie in with then she actually makes them happen. I think I’m in love with her, but that’s another story.
• On social media, read lots of other people’s posts to get a feel for the site before joining in. Start by liking stuff and be deferential when posting about your own book. Don’t do as I once did and barge into another author’s online live interview because I arrived on a site where someone had just posted a question I could answer (gah!).
• When you are offered something scary – a radio or TV interview, a talk at a book festival, dancing nude on the banks of the Thames – just say yes. Overrule the negative voices. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
Gill, I love that post – it could be about my younger self too, and I swear I’ve never, ever, seen you dribble. Now, let’s have a look at this wonderful book…
Russia is on the brink of collapse, and the Romanov family faces a terrifyingly uncertain future. Grand Duchess Tatiana has fallen in love with cavalry officer Dmitri, but events take a catastrophic turn, placing their romance – and their lives – in danger . . .
Kitty Fisher escapes to her great-grandfather’s remote cabin in America, after a devastating revelation makes her flee London. There, on the shores of Lake Akanabee, she discovers the spectacular jewelled pendant that will lead her to a long-buried family secret . . .
Haunting, moving and beautifully written, The Secret Wife effortlessly crosses centuries, as past merges with present in an unforgettable story of love, loss and resilience.
There are a few features that just about guarantee a perfect read for me. There must be a strong, moving and believable love story at its centre: I was totally enchanted from the moment Dmitri Malama first set eyes on Grand Duchess Tatiana in her nursing dress of a White Sister on the hospital ward, and totally engrossed by all the twists and turns thereafter as their story played out. The historical setting – another thing I love – was already familiar to me, and the author recreates it incredibly vividly: I was particularly struck by the privileged existence of the family and their insulation from the real lives of the Russian people, the fortune spent on luxury while others were starving. The historical fact about the final days of the Romanov dynasty was superbly woven into the fictional story, and I also liked the later introduction of the stories of those who claimed to be surviving children. The research behind this book was clearly extensive but also a labour of love, and I was really fascinated by the historical afterword where the author explains more.
I always love a story with dual time threads – I became every bit as involved in the story of Kitty, the betrayal in her marriage and her discoveries at the cabin at Lake Akanabee, as the two threads slowly converge. There’s no wrenching at all from thread to thread – one sheds light on the other, and the characters in both are just as perfectly drawn. That’s another thing I look for in a perfect read – characters I can believe in, whose emotions make me ache as they do, whose anguish and sadness moves me tears – and that was certainly the case with this one. Dmitri’s depth of love for Tatiana and the dangers he encountered in his effort to secure the future they both yearned for was simply heartbreaking. And I particularly loved the use of letters as a way of further exposing the thoughts and feelings – and the day to day lives – of the characters.
Then I always look for vivid settings and descriptions – that’s another strength I found here, whether it’s Kitty sitting on the jetty with her bottle of wine as night falls, or the formality of Dmitri’s audience with Alexandra, with the small details like the forced peach roses, the smell of garlic and the Faberge eggs in the exquisitely drawn rooms of the Alexander Palace.
I’m trying to be all controlled and analytical when telling you about this book, but can I get to the emotional bit now please? The one over-riding thing that I look for in a perfect book is its ability to sweep me up and away, take me into its world, make me really feel, and make me forget everything about real life until I close the final page. This book did just that, for a whole glorious long afternoon – and it was simply wonderful. One of my books of the year.
About the author
Gill Paul is an author of historical fiction, specialising in recent history. Her other novels include Women and Children First, about a young steward who works on the Titanic; The Affair, set in Rome in 1961–62 as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fall in love while making Cleopatra; and No Place for a Lady, about two Victorian sisters who travel out to the Crimean War of 1854–56 and face challenges beyond anything they could have imagined.
Gill also writes historical non-fiction, including A History of Medicine in 50 Objects (to be published 1st October 2016) and a series of Love Stories, each containing fourteen tales of real-life couples: how they met, why they fell for each other, and what happened in the end. Published around the world, this series includes Royal Love Stories, World War I Love Stories and Titanic Love Stories.
Gill was born in Glasgow and grew up there, apart from an eventful year at school in the US when she was ten. She studied Medicine at Glasgow University, then English Literature and History (she was a student for a long time), before moving to London to work in publishing. She started her own company producing books for publishers, along the way editing such luminaries as Griff Rhys Jones, John Suchet, and Eartha Kitt. She also writes on health, nutrition and relationships.
Gill swims year-round in an open-air pond – “It’s good for you so long as it doesn’t kill you”– and is a devotee of Pilates. She also particularly enjoys travelling on what she calls “research trips” and attempting to match-make for friends.