A Secret Alchemy – Emma Darwin

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The Secret Alchemy is set in both present day and 15th century England. The interwoven stories are seen through the eyes of both Elizabeth Woodville, the beautiful widow of King Edward IV, and her brother Anthony; whilst the modern section is told by historian, Una, who is writing a book on Anthony Woodville’s library. Elizabeth Woodville is the mother of the famous ‘Princes in the Tower’, who were imprisoned in the Tower by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, after Edaward’s death.

I was impressed by the way each section came across differently, with all three characters having a recognisable voice, although I’m not sure how accurate the language of the historical section was. I’m not an expert, but it just reads differently from other books written about this period.

I didn’t think that the modern day section was really necessary. I felt the book could have benefited from concentrating on Elizabeth’s story, as I really enjoyed reading about her. Una’s character just seemed to be there to explain the history of the War of the Roses, which although I found useful, should have been able to be achieved within the historical section. I think that anyone who knows much about this period of history would feel patronised by the continual explanations of events, but luckily for me, my only knowledge of this period comes from reading Jean Plaidy books, and that was a while ago now! Towards the end the number of characters got a bit confusing for me, so I had to keep referring to the family tree provided in the front of the book, so I’m really pleased that was included.

This book is light and easy to read, but lacks the atmosphere of a great piece of historical fiction. I can see why this book would appeal to many people, but I felt that it meandered around a bit too much and so failed to really engage me. 


Emma Darwin’s first book The Mathematics of Love was short listed for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (Best First Book, Europe and South Asia) in 2007. It seems to have much more favourable reviews than this one. Has anyone read it?

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  1. Sandy says:

    Light and easy is alright now and again, but only if the book doesn’t try to be more and fall short. That is the beauty of chick-lit and similar type genres…your expectations are usually met. I’ve not read this book, and there’s a pretty good chance I won’t. My stack is too high!

  2. Meghan says:

    I don’t think I will like this book, but I just reserved it at the library. As someone who spends most of my time buried in 15th century England and who is writing a MA dissertation focused on Anthony Woodville, I almost think I have to! I like to see how others interpret my favorite historical characters.

  3. mee says:

    Mmh another book on Elizabeth Woodville. She suddenly feels like a popular topic. (I’m thinking about The White Queen by Philippa Gregory)

  4. Jackie says:

    Sandy – I don’t mind light and easy – especially in between reading Genji + 2666! but I still like the books to grap my attention, which I’m afraid this one didn’t readlly do.

    Meghan – I’ll be very interested to hear your opinion of this one – especially as you know so much about Anthony Woodville. I think you’ll probably find the history over explained, but may find the character analysis quite interesting.

    mee – I didn’t realise The White Queen was about Elizabeth Woodville. I wonder why she is so popular all of a sudden?

  5. Dorte H says:

    Like you, I´d probably enjoy the historic parts of the book.
    Thank you for your very balanced review.

  6. Karen says:

    I haven’t read either of Darwin’s books – I am always interested in historical fiction but by the way you have described this one Jackie I’m not sure if it will be for me. Thanks for the review!

  7. Beth F says:

    I think I’ll keep this one in mind. I like HF and a little light reading sometimes.

  8. Holly says:

    This one looks interesting.

  9. Teddy says:

    The historical part sure sounds good.

  10. Sarah says:

    I’ve read The Mathematics of Love and would recommend it, although again it has a historical narrative thread (Waterloo and its aftermath) and a present day one and I preferred the former.

  11. Rebecca Holmes says:

    Like you, I felt Elizabeth’s story was the real focus of the book. However, I always like the idea of the present and the past intermingling, and that history isn’t as far away as we think, so had no problem with the presence of Una. Also I was quite happy to have the background explained, as I find it a confusing period of history – never was into names and dates – and I tend to read more contemporary fiction rather than historical. The mix worked quite well for me, though I sometimes found Anthony’s character difficult to relate to.

    1. Jackie says:

      Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time!

      It sounds as though you enjoyed this book much more than I did. Thank you for letting me know. I guess this book just didn’t really capture my attention, but I’m pleased you enjoyed it.

  12. Karen says:

    I did not get on with this one and was especially disappointed because I like the premise of it being about the two princes in The Tower – in fact this was barely touched upon. I agree that the modern day section was largely irrelevant and I did enjoy the story told from Elizabeth’s perspective the most. I found Anthony’s narrative quite hard to follow and I did not think that any of the three strands interwove very well at all. I could not have followed it at all without the various family trees at the beginning.
    Would not be tempted to read anything else by Emma Darwin, such was my disappointment with this one.

    1. Jackie says:

      Karen, It is good to heat that you agree with me. I was disappointed in this book too and although there was a point when I wanted to read Mathematics of Love I don’t think I’ll bother now – too many great books out there!

      1. Karen says:

        A fellow reading friend passed Mathematics of Love along to me quite recently because we had both read A Secret Alchemy. When I asked her what she thought she answered with a screwn up face! So Mathematics of Love is on my shelf, but right down a the very bottom. I don’t think I am going to be getting around to it either.


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