Of Secret Rooms and Lost Diaries: Palace Beautiful

This cover does not live up to the title...

 

I read an advance copy of this book ages ago and have been eagerly awaiting it’s arrival ever since. The cover of this book, though a little dated, pretty much says it all: three girls discover a diary left behind in a secret room in an attic. Gentle coming-of-age drama ensues. Sadie and her irrepressible (and sometimes irritating) little sister Zuzu have moved with their dad and stepmom from Texas to Salt Lake City to be closer to their beloved Grandma Brooks. Within hours of arriving, Sadie meets the girl next door, who informs her that her name is Belladonna Desolation and that, from a certain window, Sadie can see ghosts in the cemetary from the attic of her new home. Belladonna and Sadie become friends and eventually discover a crawl space hidden behind stacks of crates in Sadie’s attic. It is here that they discover the diary of Helen White, written during the flu epidemic in 1918. As the girls read on about Helen’s life, their own lives get more and more complicated.

This is a finely crafted novel. Sarah deFord Williams draws on middle grade standards (a long lost diary, secret attic rooms, the odd and misunderstood neighbour, a creative and sensitive protagonist) to create a deeply satisfying read. Her prose is luminous and full, wrapping the reader in a cozy narrative that feels at once original and familiar. This is exactly the balance you should aim for in a middle grade novel, and Williams nails it her first time out of the gate.

In addition to her lovely use of language, Williams is skilled at creating  believable family dynamics. Despite irritations and misunderstandings, this is a family that genuinely cares about each other. The Brooks have been through some hard times, but have emerged stronger as a family unit. Sherri, the new stepmom who is now pregnant with Sadie and ZuZu’s half-brother or sister, is particularly well drawn. She is a loving mother to her two adopted daughters, who have come to love her. Bella, whose real name is Kristin, is at odds her with mother, a conflict which is (eventually) resolved nicely and authentically.

There is no shortage of drama here, but the overall tone is gentle and the issues are dealt with sensitively. Palace Beautiful combines the best parts of historical fiction and contemporary drama into a  thouroughly enjoyable novel. I look forward to what author Sarah deFord Williams does next.

Palace Beautiful is available now from G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group.

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