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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Mr. Churchill's Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal ($15)

Margaret "Maggie" Hope is an orphan. She was born in London, grew up in Boston with her aunt, has been accepted into M.I.T. for a graduate degree in mathematics, and has postponed that study to live in London and work as a typist, for goodness sakes, for Winston Churchill.

Brilliant, brave, quick-witted, and beautiful, Maggie and her red hair flame on during Britain's darkest hour. It is May 1940, and Britain is on the verge of being bombed by Germany. What can American-sounding, America-raised Maggie do to help the cause?

For the first time Maggie has returned to the land of her birth as a recent graduate of Wellesley, in order to sell her grandmother's house. Instead, she befriends other young women, including Paige, a fellow Wellesley graduate; Charlotte, aka "Chuck," a young Irish woman; the "Dumb-Belles," Clarabelle and Annabelle; and Susan, an extraordinary young ballerina.

One of her best friends is David, a private secretary in Churchill's office. He gets Maggie a job as a typist, although Maggie, with her mathematical ability, would prefer to be doing analysis.

A Nazi/IRA plot is afoot, and sharp-eyed Maggie is the heroine who unravels it. There are also some surprising personal twists for Maggie that are well done.

Susan Elia MacNeal infuses her story with great historical detail and an olfactory subplot. She drops the names of several famous scents and some not so aromatic (people sweat a lot in her story), and associates them with her characters and scenes.

MacNeal could have made her story just sentimental or romantic with a tepid and clich├ęd plot, but she didn't. Maggie has a sense of real life about her. There are elements of romance and sentiment, but they're at a human level, no Cinemascope settings or maudlin violins. There are bona fide math and cryptology puzzles, too, showing the author respects her readers' intelligence. Primarily, however, she relies on a theme as old as time, the fallibility and heroism of human nature under duress.

Although there are several "cute" elements, this is not a cute story. It takes advantage of the drama of World War II and doesn't belittle the times with sugar-coating, but neither does MacNeal prolong her descriptions of the violence.

Enjoyable. Couldn't wait to get back to the story at the end of the day.

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