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Book Review: The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

That Weird Girl Life
[Disclaimer: I received this book for free after winning a giveaway from Goodreads through the book's publishers, and in exchange am writing an honest and fair review. All thoughts and opinions are my own]

William Morrow Paperbacks
Book: The Cottingley Secret
Author: Hazel Gaynor
Genre: Fiction
Subgenres: Historical, romance

My Review and Thoughts: I had heard of the Cottingley fairy photographs when I was younger, and I remember being so intrigued by the photograph of Frances, posing with her chin in her hand, staring slightly off camera while small fairies danced in the foreground. The idea to a young little girl that fairies could possibly be real was the most magical thought I could ever imagine and I wished with all my heart that it was true. Then I learned it wasn't true and I remember being so disappointed when I found out it was all just a hoax by two girls (but I wasn't the only one who was fooled!). But when I learned that author Hazel Gaynor wrote a historical fiction account of the girls behind the (in)famous photographs, I knew I had to read it and review it. Would it be a fictional account of two girls and their rationale behind one of the biggest hoaxes ever? Or would the book have us believe that the girls were telling the truth and fairies were/are -gasp- real? 

For those who don't know, the tale of Frances Griffith and her cousin Elsie's photographs of supposed real fairies back in 1917 (and also took a few more pictures of the fairies and gnomes over the years) in the English countryside actually happened. Those series of photographs taken by the two young girls took the world by storm, and made believers of even famed author and spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle during the dire days after World War I. After years of Frances and Elsie sticking to their story of the fairy photographs being real, they finally revealed in the 1970's that the photos were faked (they used cut out pictures of fairies and gnomes and used hat pins to pin them to the ground). All except for the last photo which they've claimed was the only real photograph out of all of the pictures they took over the years.

The story is told through two seemingly unconnected stories, told one hundred years apart. In 2017 Olivia, a lost in life 30-something year old who works as a bookbinder in London and is unhappily engaged to a man she knows she doesn't want to spend the rest of her life with. After her mother died when Olivia was young, she was raised by her grandparents in Ireland where her grandfather owned a secondhand bookstore, Something Old. Now her beloved grandfather has died, and she heads back home to check on her grandmother, who's suffering from Alzheimer's and living in an assisted care living house, and to see to Something Old, which her grandfather left her. Going back to Ireland seems like the perfect excuse to get away from her approaching marriage and the left she knows deep down she doesn't want, but when she reads a typed, hand-bound manuscript of Frances Griffith's "Notes On a Fairy Tale," a family heirloom that has been handed down from the women in her family over the years and something her grandfather sent her before he passed, Olivia soon discovers a magical piece of history that connects the Cottingley fairy photographs and Frances to her family and to the mother she lost when she was so young- possibly with a hint of fairy magic.

The book then switches to Frances' unpublished written account starting in 1917, of Frances' move with her mother from South Africa to Cottingley, England, to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousin, after her father leaves to fight in World War I. There, while she misses her father and South Africa, she bonds with her older cousin Elsie, and discovers a small hidden garden in the woods, with a flowing stream. Drawn to that lush, green garden and beck, one warm afternoon she discovers some tiny, creatures flying in the garden from the corner of her eye. Frances is determined to keep it all a secret, her little secret, even from her beloved cousin Elsie. But as Frances is reminded by her favorite teacher Mrs. Hogan, secrets have a way of coming out, and with the gloom and depression that hangs over the families worried about their loved ones during the first World War, the idea of fairies seems like such a light in the unbelievable darkness and soon enchants the world- whether Frances wants it to or not.

Both stories were interconnected, emotional, and incredibly moving and relatable, and completely swept me away in the most unexpected, wonderful way. Hazel Gaynor's writing is simple and easy to read, which keeps the story moving between Frances and Olivia at a steady pace but lush and emotional when it needs to be. The descriptions of the English countryside were lovely, and I could perfectly envision the green garden and woods where the fairies supposedly flew. The historical events and figures combined with Gaynor's own interpretation of what Frances and Elsie felt when members of the Theosophical Society in London and photography experts come to investigate these intriguing Yorkshire fairy photographs, were combined with realistic ease, as two frustrated young girls just wanted to live their lives and keep a secret, while the whole world searched  and prodded for an answer only Frances ultimately knew. And Olivia's very real struggles, of being lost in love and in life, is incredibly relatable, and unlike a lot of other main characters in other modern fiction novels, you aren't annoyed or frustrated with her decisions or lack there of. You want her to succeed, to find out what she wants in life, and to be happy, and are grateful for the discovery of Frances' hand-written memoir that sets a series of events into motion for Olivia and ultimately changes her life.

Though there were only two main characters in the book, Olivia and Frances, who were both compelling and very relatable, it was the secondary characters for me that really made the book. Frances' cousin Elsie, aunt, uncle, and her teacher Mrs. Hogan, to Olivia's grandparents, her grandparent's old friend and now Olivia's mentor, Henry Blake, and handsome local writer and frequent bookstore customer Ross and his young daughter Iris all made the book come alive and bloom, adding even more depth and heart to it's already two charming protagonists. Even the bookstore, Something Old, brings along it's own rustic charm, filled with books that hold so many stories, through their old typed word and past lives of their old owners, to the large storefront window where some seemingly magical flowers start to bloom around a fairy door Iris places there and draws customers to the store. All of  these elements- human characters, secret family history, romance, the lush English and Irish countryside, and the idea of fairies- all blend together to make one of the most charming and captivating stories I've read in a long, long time. 

It's not very often a book literally encapsulates the word "enchanting," without actually being a sweeping fantasy novel, but The Cottingley Secret pulls it off and then some.

Should You Read It: In my honest opinion, if you love historical fiction with a hint of fantasy (aka the idea of fairies, not some grandiose novel set in another land with human/dragon shapeshifters), I think you'll love The Cottingley Secret. I seriously could not put it down and was swept away with the story and imagery and characters. This will probably be the book that I recommend the most to people this year, so do yourself a favor and read it so I won't bother you about reading it! (You're welcome in advance!) Because we all need the idea of fairies and magic in our lives, don't we? (I'll answer for you: we do!)

Stay Weird,

Grab a copy of The Cottingley Secret now so you can be swept away by magic and fairies! ✨

Also, how gorgeous is this cover?? I seriously could not stop taking pictures of it! So beautiful! Could this book be any more perfect?? 😍

That Weird Girl Life
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