Completely heartwarming novel about London in the latter stages of WWII (taking over where Crooked Heart left off). Noel Bostock (15) and his “pretend” Aunt (Vee) are living in the large house Noel inherited from his “pretend” godmother, the famous suffragette Mattie Simpkin. It has become a boarding house where boarders pay rent in both cash and tutoring for Noel. When a room becomes vacant, they search for a boarder with specific knowledge to impart. Noel is the most wonderful character — smart, capable, kind, and curious about absolutely everything. Mr. Reddish teaches him math while quoting his own rather bad poetry; Dr. Parry-Jones teaches science (giving him a dissectible rat for his birthday); the one-eared Mr. Jepson teaches him Latin; and Miss Appleby mixes her French lessons with more personal lessons about the heart (her heart to be precise).
In the odd way different lives seem to come together haphazardly, an American GI drives a lorry on the wrong side of the road, the more fashionable (and obnoxious) twin of an air-raid warden writes a surprising novel about her sister, and Noel’s origin story comes out of hiding.
I really like her writing — some nice quotes below:
“He didn’t have a family tree, he had a Venn diagram, in which none of the circles overlapped.”
“Impossible to explain Vee’s myriad antipathies, her constantly updated list of prejudices and judgements.”
“She had fallen for Romeo and now found herself padlocked to the editor of Modern Homes and Gardens.”
“Since the end, just a year ago, of his own, terrible marriage he found himself studying other couples, like someone conning an aircraft recognition chart — spotting those tics and phrases that signaled contempt or boredom or fear, and when he saw those, he wanted to take one or other of the pair aside, and say, ‘Finish it now.’
“Jepson was present but unlit, so that in the dining room he was more furniture than inhabitant, talked around and over, but never to. But in lessons there were glimmers — he had seized Noel’s first essay and pushed the words around the page like backgammon counters, showing him how to introduce a subject, how to make a neat and satisfying ending, how to prune, and rearrange the content.”
“It was so easy, she thought, as he led her towards the music; he was so easy — a printed postcard, when every other man she’d ever known was a sealed letter filled with blank pages or mystifying codes”