Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs

>> Thursday, December 03, 2015

TITLE: Shining Through
AUTHOR: Susan Isaacs

PAGES: 464
PUBLISHER: Harper Torch

SETTING: 1940s New York and Germany
TYPE: Fiction

It's 1940 and Linda Voss, legal secretary extraordinaire, has a secret. She's head over heels in love with her boss, John Berringer, the pride of the Ivy League. Not that she even has a chance--he'd never take a second look at a German-Jewish girl from Queens who spends her time taking care of her faded beauty of a mother and following bulletins on the war in Europe. For Linda, though, the war will soon become all too real. Engulfing her nation and her life, it will offer opportunities she's never dreamed of. A chance to win the man she wants...a chance to find the love she deserves.

Made into the movie of the same name starring Melanie Griffith, Michael Douglas, and Liam Neeson, Shining Through is a novel of honor, sacrifice, passion, and humor. This is vintage Susan Isaacs, a tale of a spirited woman who wisecracks her way into heroism and history--and into your heart.

I discovered Shining Through in my late teens/early twenties, and read it again and again and again. I reread it again this year after not going back to it for quite a while (I don't have a review of it on the blog, which suggests I hadn't reread it since 2002. That can't be right, surely? I guess I stopped rereading frequently since I started my switch to ebooks). I'm always a little bit worried when I do that, afraid that the book won't be quite as amazing as I remember, or that it might have aged badly. I shouldn't have worried. Shining Through has held up wonderfully.

If at all possible, I would suggest reading this without knowing much about the plot and where it's going, so I'm going to try not to go into too much detail. The story takes place in the early 40s and it's about Linda Voss, a young Jewish woman from Queens. Linda doesn't quite fit in. Girls like her are supposed to go to secretarial school and then just get a job until they get married. Linda did go to secretarial school and got a job at an uptown law firm, but marriage to the men she met never quite felt right. Now she's an old maid, for the standards of the day (31!).

Linda also feels a sense of dissatisfaction with her life. She has nothing in common with the people she works with and lives with. None of them thinks what's going on in Europe has anything to do with them, while she obsessively follows the news and worries. The other secretaries would much rather gossip about the private lives of the partners in the law firm. Linda doesn't care.

Well, actually, she does care about the private life of one of the partners, the very one she works for. Because for all that she's different from the other secretaries, she has managed to become that old cliché, the secretary who's in love with her boss. John Berringer is handsome and cultured and very Ivy League. Linda pictures them gazing into each other's eyes while discussing the war in Europe, him taking her very seriously. Unfortunately, John is married, and to a woman just as Ivy League as himself.

But Linda's life is soon to be shaken up. She will get everything she thought she wanted and discover it's not quite what she expected. She'll also be pulled into the war effort in a way she would never ever have predicted.

This is a story full of memorable characters, drama and adventure. Best of all, there's just as much drama and adventure in the more domestic portions of the story as there is in the non-domestic ones. I also particularly loved the sense of place and time. Is it accurate? I don't really know. I do know it feels real and it's wonderfully vivid.

There are several elements that made this such a favourite for me. First, Linda Voss is one of my favourite characters ever. She's intelligent and funny and brave. I loved her self-awareness, and I also loved how that wasn't perfect and she sometimes managed to blind herself to what was in front of her (Isaacs is good at making sure the reader can see more clearly than her, while not making Linda come across as stupid). She felt real to me, and I loved her. I felt happy with her and felt crushed when she felt crushed. I was terrified for her and felt triumphant with her. I wanted her to be happy.

And this brings me to the romance. I don't want to say much about it, just that although we don't see a great deal of it, it's absolutely perfect and these two people are exactly right for each other. Sometimes it's good to be left wanting more.

The final thing that I adore about this book is the writing. It's narrated from Linda's point of view and her voice feels just right. Isaacs writing is brilliant. She creates characters that feel real, even the tiny secondary ones, and there were many little details and images in this book that stayed in my mind for years. As I reread it this time, I looked forward to old favourites. Isaacs is one of the very few authors, if not the only one, whose voice is so compelling that I would honestly be happy to read her shopping list.

I'm very glad I went back to this book, and I suspect it's going to be reread again soon. I will definitely be rereading other books of Isaacs' soon.


NOTE: The book was made into a 1992 film starring Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith and Liam Neeson. If you watched it, don't let this put you off. This film differed substantially from the book and, IMO, wasn't anywhere near as good.


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