“The Forgotten Room” is a collaboration by authors Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig. This current bestseller is part historical novel, part mystery, and an exploration of relationships throughout generations. The chapters alternate between timelines spanning about fifty years, from the 1890s Gilded Age, the 1920s Roaring Twenties, to the end of World War II. The focus on a particular family and a single location makes the transition between periods very smooth.
The authors mixed well the ingredients to make a wonderful story: three different narratives, three different timelines, three different relationships, one building that turned into three different locales, and one mystery that affects three different generations. The plot begins with critically wounded Captain Cooper Ravenal begging for Dr. Kate Schuyler to save his leg. While the Captain recovers in a private hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side Kate is drawn into a complex mystery. The miniature portrait the Captain is carrying strongly resembles Kate and has the same ruby pendant she inherited from her mother. As the Captain and doctor pursue answers they find that there is a connection between three generations of women in Kate’s family to three different men in his family, linked to a room in a Gilded Age mansion.
Beatriz Williams had a connection to the building since it used to be owned by her husband’s family. She commented, “This used to be a breathtaking mansion. It was our inspiration since it started out as a private mansion for an industrialist and has now become a hospital. When we looked around we saw that every floor was more inspiring than the next. To get to the top floor there was this spiral staircase. There was this amazing room now used for storage that had depictions of Saint George and the Dragon. We started to think who would have lived here. Anyone who has read my book A Hundred Summers might remember the character Aunt Julie. She is based on a real character that grew up in this house.”
The building in the 1890s was a mansion where Kate’s grandmother, Olive Van Alen, worked as a maid. She is determined to get revenge on behalf of her architect father against the owner who stiffed him after the building was completed. Kate’s mother, Lucy Young, came to the building in the 1920s, now a boarding house, to find the truth about her paternity. Kate also seeks personal answers while working in the building, now a hospital, during World War II. The book shows how choices, events from the past as well as fate has an effect on future generations.
Lauren Willig noted, “We all have heard stories about our parents’ past. These stories were passed down by generations, like the ruby necklace, and have been used to define ourselves. We don’t know if they are true, but they have become the truth. A part of us has been shaped by our past, even before we were born. The epilogue represented how our past affects our present. The loop keeps on going. How a single choice can affect generations down the road.”
An issue explored, which anyone can relate to, can true love overcome necessity. Olive and her soul mate Harry were from different economic backgrounds where many of the wealthy did not marry for love. Her daughter Lucy faced a similar situation, marrying someone she only felt comfortable with, and then there was Kate. Would she do the same thing as the past generations, giving up the love of her life?
Women empowerment is also shown through the different timelines. Realistically portrayed, women at times were not seen as equals. Yet, with each generation they gained within society and became more professionally acceptable: Olive a maid, Lucy an executive assistant, and Kate a medical doctor. A powerful quote from the book emphasizes this, “I find a woman with brains enormously attractive and not threatening in the least.”
Karen White stated, “We were all interested in the impact of the past an how that has affected women. Given the constraints of society each mother wanted more for their daughters than they themselves had. Kate was taught to be career oriented. The reason we gave her that profession was that WWII left a gap in the amount of doctors. After reading some great Memoirs on female WWII doctors we wrote Kate as a doctor who gets push back and fights to find her way to push the envelope.”
Father/daughter relationships are an important backstory to the plot. Olive spent a year trying to find evidence to clear her father and destroy the family who brought shame to her dad. Lucy felt lost after her father died and wondered if the man she adored, admired, and respected was indeed her dad. And Kate remembers the happy times she sat on her father’s lap without a care in the world.
“The Forgotten Room” is a riveting and insightful book. With captivating characters, an intricate plot line, and just missed opportunities it shows how people can be affected by the choices they make. An added bonus is the realism of the settings and the behaviors of the times. Anyone wanting a captivating novel should read this story.