In brief: After Spanish influenza decimates Leonora’s world, she decides to leave England behind for her dream of making cosmetics in New York. But not everyone shares Leo’s opinion about the right to wear makeup, except Everett Forsyth…so why is he so opposed to his daughter appearing in a cosmetics advertising campaign?
The good: Such a lovely strong character in Leo who isn’t afraid to be feminine.
The not-so-good: Some of the other female characters are not very nice at all!
Pages: 390 (ARC)
Setting: England and New York City, USA
Rating: 9 out of 10
One of my enjoyable books of 2016 was Natasha Lester’s A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald which combined medicine with the Jazz Age, making for a read that was truly the cat’s pyjamas. When I heard that Her Mother’s Secret involved cosmetics, I was even more eager to read the novel, which is set in similar times, but with less jazz and more lipstick. (Which is frankly, just how I like it). It reads like a page turner, but it also covers some of the major limitations affecting women from the 1920s to 1940s.
The story opens in a little village in England at the tail end of World War I. Leonora East is working in her father’s chemist shop and making cosmetics on the side for the nurses at the local military hospital. When the war finishes, everything is joyous until the arrival of Spanish influenza, which decimates the population. Unfortunately for Leo, that also includes her father. She makes a decision to follow her dream of going to New York City and making her cosmetics on a commercial scale. On the way to the ship, she meets Everett Forsyth, a man who will have a lot to do with her future. It’s not easy for Leo, as society still believes that women shouldn’t really be working and if they aren’t prostitutes, shouldn’t be wearing cosmetics. Leo is determined to change that and starts making trial lipsticks and mascara in a Chinese medicine shop owned by Jia, who is later to become a close friend. In between all this, Leo works two jobs and would probably work more if not for an unexpected event that changes her plans. She decides to reunite with the Richier siblings, Ben and Faye. Ben has the money and eye for Leo, while Faye wants the lipstick only. How will Leo make it work?
If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned mothers yet, it’s because of events occurring in the latter part of the book which involve Everett’s daughter Alice and an offer to star in advertisements for cosmetics. Neither Everett nor Alice’s mother are keen. What secrets does she hide from Alice?
As you can see, there’s quite a lot going on in Her Mother’s Secret but never once does it feel difficult to keep track of. The story unfolds as naturally as real life, with its ups and downs. It’s so easy to read and fall into Leo’s world. You can feel her frustration when her mascara turns to gloop and when she is dismissed by (male) store managers for trying to sell her cosmetics. Leo is a character in a million as she’s lovely, but has a backbone of steel and the ability to pick herself off and dust herself off after being rejected. She’s also practical beyond her years. (Plus she has great clothes and even better makeup). She’s supported by strong female characters in Jia, Joan and Lottie. There’s another very strong female character that I didn’t warm to though – Faye. Faye is a nasty piece of work who will apply her standards to everyone but herself. She drinks too much and takes too many drugs. Yet you have to admire her cunning. Like Leo, she aims to achieve what she wants (but through very different means).
The story moves along beautifully at just the right pace and the research is fascinating. I must admit to taking a protracted Google diversion into the world of automats (a cheap café with vending machine like options – Google it and be prepared to spend at least 1 hour looking through pictures and stories!). Overall, Her Mother’s Secret is a captivating read that celebrates the determination of women, with romance and mystery added in. It’s a lovely story for Mother’s Day or any day really!