Both Violet’s and Vivian’s stories follow familiar well-trod paths of relationship debacles and temptations. The girls both leave lives of luxury and garner the disdain of their families to make their own fortune in the world. Violet falls in love with the first man she meets outside of her sheltered world and must deal with the consequences of that love, while Vivian faces a lonely life focused on her journalism career rather than on finding a husband.
Violet is a fairly traditional heroine breaking out on her own for the first time ever. She is meek, non-confrontational, and yet willing to step out of her family’s shadow to pursue her dreams of being a scientist. Her initial eagerness and then generic acceptance of her husband’s rather prolific bedroom life makes her a pitiable creature. For all her desire to become an independent thinker, she struggles to become one outside of the laboratory. The fact that she shows elements of rebellion make her submission all the more frustrating a character.
It is Vivian, however, that becomes the star of the novel. Vivian is Violet’s exact opposite. Her openness about relationships. her inability to feel embarrassed, and her je ne sais quoi are breathtakingly refreshing. She is a character who sparkles with life and makes the world a bit brighter for everyone around her and everyone reading about her. She may seem flippant but really has a heart of gold and a wealth of loyalty that more than makes up for her sometimes questionable behavior. More importantly, Vivian is fun. She embraces life and wants others to enjoy life as much as she does. She works hard, plays hard, and loves hard. She is definitely living life to the fullest.
Their stories follow the requisite paths typically attributed to such girls. Violet makes one bold step in leaving her family’s nest but falls victim to another trope in the guise of her courtship and eventual marriage. She never makes a move to escape her jail until another love interest enters the scene. For him, she is finally willing to take another step towards independence but then settles back to let him lead her towards her future. Vivian may be more independent but even her story follows a similar vein. Whereas Violet’s story is a cautionary one about men and their conniving ways, Vivian’s story is about the dangers of selfishness. She may not be willing to let someone else dictate her story, but hers is very much a warning against doing anything to get what you want. Still, of the two, Vivian is the more attractive and likable of the two women. Vivian understands the world and faces it head-on, whereas Violet is much like the flower after which she is named, delicate and fragile in direct sunlight but thrives in the shadows.
Ms. Williams’ writing is exquisite. Many of Violet’s scenes involve highly scientific discussions, yet at no point in time are those discussions boring or difficult to understand. She makes Violet’s research and thereby Violet herself accessible. In particular, the scenes depicting Violet’s research in action, the tedium of counting flashes of light and the meaning behind those flashes are extraordinary in their precision and evocativeness. One’s shoulders ache just reading about it. Other descriptions are just as vivid, making any narrative a pleasure to read.
In spite of certain elements of stereotypical archetypes, The Secret Life of Violet Grant is an endearing story about love. ForVivian alone it is worth reading the novel because she is so open and honest that she is utterly lovable and charming. Violet’s story has issues with predictability and weak characters, but the circles in which she finds herself inhabiting as well as her fate are quite intriguing. Given Vivian’s vibrancy, the fascinating backdrop of Germany on the brink of the first world war, and Ms. Williams’ amazing prose, The Secret Life of Violet Grant is sure to be one of this summer’s highlights.