Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chateau of Secrets by Melanie Dobson

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: March 17, 2014

A courageous young noblewoman risks her life to hide French resistance fighters; seventy years later, her granddaughter visits the family’s abandoned chateau and uncovers shocking secrets from the past.Gisèle Duchant guards a secret that could cost her life. Tunnels snake through the hill under her family’s medieval chateau in Normandy. Now, with Hitler’s army bearing down, her brother and several friends are hiding in the tunnels, resisting the German occupation of France. But when German soldiers take over the family’s château, Gisèle is forced to host them as well—while harboring the resistance fighters right below their feet. Taking in a Jewish friend’s baby, she convinces the Nazis that it is her child, ultimately risking everything for the future of the child. When the German officers begin to suspect her deception, an unlikely hero rescues both her and the child. A present day story weaves through the past one as Chloe Salvare, Gisèle’s granddaughter, arrives in Normandy. After calling off her engagement with a political candidate, Chloe pays a visit to the chateau to escape publicity and work with a documentary filmmaker, Riley, who has uncovered a fascinating story about Jews serving in Hitler’s army. Riley wants to research Chloe’s family history and the lives that were saved in the tunnels under their house in Normandy. Chloe is floored—her family isn’t Jewish, for one thing, and she doesn’t know anything about tunnels or the history of the house. But as she begins to explore the dark and winding passageways beneath the chateau, nothing can prepare her for the shock of what she and Riley discover... With emotion and intrigue, Melanie Dobson brings World War II France to life in this beautiful novel about war, family, sacrifice, and the secrets of the past.

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Want to know something funny? I don't really want to write this review. I don't want to write it because once I put down my thoughts, I'll have to say goodbye and Melanie Dobson's Chateau of Secrets is the kind of story I hate to let go of.

I suppose the most amazing thing about the novel is that both story lines - Chloe's in the present and Gisèle's during WWII - are equally compelling. Maybe I've been unlucky, but this is practically unheard of in my experience. More often than not one period will read much stronger than the other and I end up skimming whole chapters to pick up the more interesting half of the narrative, but that didn't happen here. The stories complement one another, but are unique enough to be appreciated in their own right. 

Religion plays a noticeable role in the story, but it flows naturally and is applied to the characters in very realistic ways. I abhor preachy fiction with a passion and was stunned at how effectively Dobson was able to utilize faith as a primary theme without pontificating. 

Riley's story was a little much and I wasn't convinced Austin would have exited as quickly as he did, but these are minor quibbles at best. Thoroughly engaging and entirely unpredictable, Chateau of Secrets isn't to be missed. 

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“But Hitler was trying to kill the Jews—”
He glanced down at the Vire as we crossed the bridge over it. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? On one hand, he was exterminating the Jewish people, and on the other, he was using them in his army. Sometimes he even ‘Aryanized’ them.”
“How exactly does one Aryanize someone?”
“Hitler declared his Jewish soldiers had German blood, and magically, by the power of Hitler, they had new genes.”
“He thought he was God.”
Riley nodded. “And the Nazi leaders encouraged his delusion. He was power hungry but he was also pragmatic. The army needed more soldiers, and if the Jewish men were willing to fight for him, Hitler and his top men were often willing to look the other way. The families of these soldiers were a different story . . .”
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