It took long seconds, then, for Goldie to focus on the first print. When she did, her mind cleared instantly. She forgot the hour, her grumbling stomach, her unlikely chance of catching the bus. And she forgot, too, the clothes she loved, elegant shoes, the hats she admired on wealthy women, fur coats, everything she wanted. Goldie Rubin looked down at this old Japanese print and, for what felt like the first time in her life, she saw something truly beautiful.
(from The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, pages 122-123)
The Secret of the Nightingale Palace is a beautifully written, tender novel about a young widow trying to rebuild her life and her relationship with her 85-year-old grandmother. Anna hasn’t seen her grandmother in five years, but Goldie somehow convinces her to leave her Memphis bungalow, fly to New York City, and meet Goldie for a road trip to San Francisco, where she lived for a time at the beginning of World War II. The pair set off in Goldie’s old Rolls Royce with the goal of returning a book full of colorful Japanese prints that was given to Goldie for safe keeping when the Nakamura family was sent to an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The book alternates between the present, with Anna needing to deal with her grief and guilt and turning to the Japanese prints to give her the nudge she needs to find healing in her art, and the past, which slowly pulls back the layers of Goldie’s life in San Francisco and her relationship with Mayumi Nakamura and her brother, Henry. Sachs shows how Anna and Goldie’s relationship evolves from bitter, angry words to understanding and compassion.
The Secret of the Nightingale Palace was hard to put down because I quickly became attached to these deep, thoughtful characters. Anna is hurting, and she’s afraid to move forward because a life without suffering cannot be guaranteed. Goldie comes off as a bit harsh with her frank, unflinching comments about Anna’s late husband and the stagnant life she’s living now, but she really does have Anna’s best interests at heart and understands her more than Anna realizes. Goldie’s character is developed in the passages set in the past, with the young, flighty, naive, poor, and hard-working Goldie juxtaposed with the older Goldie, who is elegant, rich, strong-minded, and unafraid. Although readers get to know Anna, this truly is Goldie’s story.
I was drawn to the story set in 1940s San Francisco, with Goldie working as a shop girl and trying to find a husband and Mayumi and Henry trying to navigate their parents’ plans for their future and the increasing hostility against anyone of Japanese descent. Goldie learns plenty about love and loss during this tumultuous period of war, and the truth about what happened there more than 60 years before the road trip must be revisited so Goldie can find peace and Anna can find happiness.
Sachs succeeds in bringing these women to life through their conversations and confrontations and their similar, strong-willed personalities, and I absolutely loved them. She seamlessly moves the narrative between past and present and manages to put readers in the scene, whether a picturesque tea garden or a car cruising down a desolate highway through changing landscapes. The Secret of the Nightingale Palace is more than just a story about love and loss, family, and forgiveness. It’s also about learning to live without a plan and not letting life pass you by. Goldie is such a breath of fresh air, and readers would do well to take her advice: “Make your own party.”
Disclosure: I received The Secret of the Nightingale Palace from William Morrow for review.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.