Book Review for “The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts, and Royal Scandal” by Bryn Turnbull.
Summary: “In the summer of 1926, when Thelma Morgan marries Viscount Duke Furness after a whirlwind romance, she’s immersed in a gilded world of extraordinary wealth and privilege. For Thelma, the daughter of an American diplomat, her new life as a member of the British aristocracy is like a fairy tale—even more so when her husband introduces her to Edward, Prince of Wales. In a twist of fate, her marriage to Duke leads her to fall headlong into a love affair with Edward. But happiness is fleeting, and their love is threatened when Thelma’s sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, becomes embroiled in a scandal with far-reaching implications. As Thelma sails to New York to support Gloria, she leaves Edward in the hands of her trusted friend Wallis, never imagining the consequences that will follow.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Biographical, Fiction; Settings: Historical, United Kingdom, New York, USA; Other Categories: Novel, Debut.
You know, if this wasn’t based on the true life of Thelma Morgan and her identical twin sister Gloria, it would be considered a pretty sad, and unbelievable attempt at writing a twisty, bodice ripper, romance novel of the very worst kind. Of course, they say that the truth is stranger than fiction, and this is one instance that proves that to be the case. I mean, it has everything. There are the rags to riches stories, that include some diversions back to rags and even a few back riches. There are handsome, but flirtatious aristocrats willing to finally give up their philandering for the right woman, or at least profess to do so, and then go back to their dalliances. There are society events filled with liquor, drugs and promiscuity, including those of homosexual sort. There’s also the drama of a court battle that could ruin not just those parties directly involved in the suit, but also some VIPs on the fringes. Yes, just the types of things that would make Mills & Boon or Harlequin drool.
And yet, this isn’t a romance novel, despite the many romances that occur. It is solidly biographical, historical, women’s fiction, and Turnbull allows only the most important of the amorous scenes to be included. In fact, this is more of a character study of Thelma, combined with a family saga – or rather, several family sagas, of both royals and commoners. Furthermore, this is one of those historical novels that never feels like we’re being inundated with facts to the detriment of the story line, which is quite a feat for a debut novel. I’m pleased to say that the very fine line of just enough information never gets crossed over into too much, nor does Turnbull use any literary mechanics to fill in the blanks, like quotes from newspaper articles or transcripts of the court cases. Instead, Turnbull simply takes Thelma and follows her path during the most tumultuous time of her life, and shows us what she experiences, as well as how she feels. Absolutely spot on, as far as that’s concerned!
If there’s any drawback to this novel, I’d say that I’m not totally sure that the shifting timelines worked in this book’s favor. To be precise, on the one hand, we have her twin sister’s court battle to keep custody of her daughter, which took place in 1934. On the other hand, we have Thelma’s own life with her first failed marriage (1922-1925), into her second one (1926-1933), and her affair with the Prince of Wales, which began in 1929 and ended in 1934. I have to be honest here, and say that I think I would have preferred Turnbull to have stuck to a strictly chronological timeline rather than interspersing the 1934 pieces along the way. This had a bit of a jarring effect to the storytelling for me, and I did get confused a couple of times. Obviously, at one point these two timelines meet up, and from there the novel read much smoother for me.
That said, I can’t help noting that the one thing that prevents this novel into falling solidly into the romance genre is the fact that there are essentially no happy endings. That’s because this truly is a tragic story, and I’m not sure that we can’t blame Thelma (or Gloria) for at least part of their own suffering. Despite this, Turnbull does make Thelma into as sympathetic a character as she possibly can, so that any anger we might have held against her for her poor decisions, is replaced with a level of sorrow. That’s not really a bad thing, since we don’t pity her, we just wish she had done things differently. All this goes to show that Turnbull’s first outing is quite an achievement, and I can warmly recommend it with a very healthy four out of five stars.
Mira Books released “The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts, and Royal Scandal” by Bryn Turnbull on July 21, 2020. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.