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Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters

Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters
Pub. Date: August 4, 2015
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Putnam!)
Summary: Forgive me, Dorothea, for I cannot forgive you. What you do, to this child, to this child’s mother, it is wrong…

Roberta likes to collect the letters and postcards she finds in second-hand books. When her father gives her some of her grandmother’s belongings, she finds a baffling letter from the grandfather she never knew – dated after he supposedly died in the war.

Dorothy is unhappily married to Albert, who is away at war. When an aeroplane crashes in the field behind her house she meets Squadron Leader Jan Pietrykowski, and as their bond deepens she dares to hope she might find happiness. But fate has other plans for them both, and soon she is hiding a secret so momentous that its shockwaves will touch her granddaughter many years later…
Genre: Historical Fiction, WWII-era fiction

I feel that an awful lot of my reviews begin with “If you know me, then you know that…” but it’s true: there’s a distinct bent to my reading. I know what I like and rarely stray from that, particularly when it comes to unknown-to-me authors. One of my all-time favorite tropes in historical fiction is the discovery of a letter. Oh, how my heart sings when someone stumbles across a hidden stack of letters from the past! With Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase, a letter discovered by a woman’s granddaughter proves very interesting indeed: it’s written by the woman’s husband and dated 1941…a year after he was said to have been killed in the war. COLOR ME INTRIGUED!

In the present day, Roberta is going about her day-to-day job as a used bookseller and spends her nights unlucky in love (she’s currently having a lackluster affair with a married man.) As she sorts through the books the store takes in, she uncovers forgotten mementos of previous lives: a child’s handmade card to his mother, photographs, love letters. What she never expected was to come across a letter of her own. While going through her grandmother’s belongings after moving her to a nursing home, Roberta finds a suitcase belonging to a Mrs. Sinclair and inside a curious letter. You see, the letter is from her grandfather, written to her grandmother. While that isn’t necessarily odd, what’s strange is that the letter is dated 1941…and Roberta had always been told her grandfather had been killed during the war in 1940. Letting her curiosity get the better of her, Roberta spirals down a path seeking answers to questions that might be better left in the past.

I love, love me some dual era novels. You write a novel set during WWII and the present day and there’s an EXCELLENT chance I’ll be drooling all over myself. It wasn’t any different with Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase and I was practically foaming at the mouth until I had it in hand and was able to start reading. And here I must be honest: Roberta was such an off-putting character that I nearly abandoned the book after just a few chapters. I was wildly interested in Dorothea’s story (she’s in a loveless marriage and later meets a Polish Squadron Leader after a plane crash practically in her backyard) but nothing about Roberta’s life captivated me. Perhaps this is just a ‘me’ issue: I know exactly what it’s like to work in a used bookstore and discover a wealth of things (both good and hideously disgusting) inside books. Flipping through an 1800s copy of a bible, for example, could reveal numerous letters and odd bits of paper. So perhaps because I know that life it doesn’t seem as romantic and enticing? Roberta’s boss, the man she’s seeing, her coworker’s abortion…none of it interested me and I found myself bored to the point where I seriously considered cutting my losses and moving on to the next novel.

But then. BUT THEN! I don’t know what happened or what changed, but I found that ‘one more chapter’ turned into 50 pages, then 100, finally 200 pages were gone and I had reached the end. I suppose that Dorothea’s story was so enchanting that I was compelled to keep going and going until I could go no more. An unhappy marriage that’s resulted in a handful of miscarriages (and, finally, a stillbirth.) A plane crash that left no survivors. A handsome (and much younger) Polish soldier thanking her for her bravery and courage in attempting to save the pilot. It was all so fascinating and I felt all the emotions I think I was meant to feel for Roberta’s plights but never felt. Had the novel been solely about Dorothea I would have been one happy girl.

I found it odd that Roberta’s chapters were written in first-person while Dorothea’s were told in third. While I love multiple narrations, the style was a bit jarring in the beginning and by the end I never quite felt comfortable with it. There were also a few details that never really went anywhere – Dorothea’s poetry, for example. Multiple times we’re told she spends her time writing poems yet it doesn’t add to the story nor are any of the poems in the novel. Other than the author being a published poet, I don’t see any reason for its inclusion.

With blurbs from Sarah McCoy and Jessica Brockmole I was more than a little intrigued, even more so after reading a mini-interview with Louise Walters where she discussed the inspiration behind the novel (she actually owns a suitcase labeled with a Mrs. D Sinclair patch and had once come across a letter written by a Polish Squadron Leader to an English couple.) While its creation was fascinating, I can’t exactly say the same for the final product. I wish the novel would have cut out Roberta’s story completely and instead focused on Dorothea during the war, possibly even through the years to the present day (where she’s currently 109.) Although I’m glad I didn’t abandon this one early on, I can’t quite say I’m pleased to have read it. Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase left me wanting more – particularly in regards to the fates of certain characters. I will say though that it was a very quick read, I just wish it would have been a wholly WWII-set story.

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