Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: The Secret of Nightingale Palace by Dana Sachs

The Secret of the Nightingale Palace tells the story of Anna and her crusty, proper grandmother Goldie - their relationship and each of their pasts. They have had a special relationship since Anna was a young girl but have recently been estranged; Goldie is not one to hold her tongue and when she made it clear she did not feel Anna's husband was the best choice for her, Anna was deeply hurt and removed her grandmother from her life. Five years later and following the death of her husband from leukemia, Anna receives a call from Goldie asking if she will accompany her cross country from NY to San Francisco. Much to her own surprise, Anna decides to drive her grandmother cross country and the two set out on a trip where they each reveal a lot about themselves to the other but also learn a lot about themselves in the process. The reader is taken along for that ride and is treated to a bit of historical fiction in the process.

Goldie lives a well appointed life in New York City and in Palm Beach surrounded by beautiful artwork, fine meals at top restaurants and people to cater to all her needs. She seems born to this life. The truth is she was raised in Memphis, TN in a large, poor family and had to leave school in eighth grade. Her humble beginnings and an intense desire to leave them behind has driven many decisions throughout her life from her move from Memphis to San Francisco to choice of husband who eventually moved her to New York. Anna knows surprisingly little about her Grandmother's history - there have been references to how Goldie suffered as a young girl but she has been fairly circumspect about her life as a young adult in San Francisco.

In much the same way, Goldie doesn't really know her granddaughter - she especially doesn't fully appreciate Anna's suffering since the loss of her husband. She is a young widow and that is devastating but she is also haunted by the fact that she had begun to doubt whether she had made a mistake in marrying Ford before he became sick. Everyone views her as a grieving widow but she struggles with her conflicted feelings about Ford and it is a dark secret which she hides. Keeping this secret walls her off emotionally from friends and family and leaves Anna feeling misunderstood. The trip cross country with Goldie will test the wall she has built.

Much of the book is about Goldie and Anna and the book alternates between each of their stories and then their shared experience on the cross country trip. However, considering the cover and the title of the book, it seems incomplete not to mention another component of this book. While living in San Francisco, Goldie meets Mayumi, a Japanese American woman. Goldie and Mayumi become close friends and Goldie is welcomed by Mayumi's family. She is fascinated by their Japanese culture and is honored to take part in a tea ceremony with them. Mayumi and her brother, Henry, jokingly refer to their home as "Nightingale Palace" in reference to the nightingale floors in a Shogun's house which would make a noise like birds singing when people walked on the floor warning them on an intruder. Henry says:
 Mayumi and I started calling our house "The Nightingale Palace" because our parents are like that. They gave up everything to in order to leave Japan, but this beautiful life they have created here is completely focused on protecting our family, protecting our culture.
That beautiful life is shattered when the Nakamura's are moved to an internment camp during the war and the culture they have worked so hard to preserve and honor becomes a reason to strip the family of their rights and exile them.

My Thoughts
The Secret of the Nightingale Palace offers a sweeping tale with extremely well drawn characters. Goldie is especially memorable and I liked reading about her past and how it drove the many decisions she made throughout her life. Anna provides a counterpoint to Goldie - she is quiet and accommodating where Goldie is demanding and strong willed.  The Nakamura's bring the element of historical fiction to the book as the readers are transported to San Francisco during the war when Japantown was emptied and families moved into internment camps. They also introduce an immigrant theme and the feeling of being an outsider in the country in which you have chosen to live or which your parents have chosen to live. I thoroughly enjoyed this book - the characters are still with me.

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher.

You can read other reviews from those on the TLC Book Tour here


  1. These sound like some intriguing characters in this book. I'm going to look for it, wonderful review.

  2. Sort of torn about this one -- I wasn't, at least, until your review -- and now I'm torn. Darn you! ;)

  3. That's really interesting about nightingale floors! The history in this book sounds like something I would eat up, especially since it partly takes place in San Francisco.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  4. Hm, we have a nightingale step in our house! I love immigrant stories so this sounds really good to me.

  5. This one has been on my list. And, we have a nightingale step in our house too. That is so cool.

  6. Yes, these are characters you don't forget easily. Glad to see you enjoyed it as much as I did!

  7. Thanks for linking in with Books You Loved. The march edition has just gone live - no problem if you wanted to relink this up there. Cheers