Family Reads: The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

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Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Hazel Gaynors’s The Cottingley Secret

Mom with The Cottingley Secret

Mom and I ended up selecting this book via a ‘saw it on GoodReads’ chain. I saw someone add it to their TBR, so then I added it to my TBR; Mom saw I added it to my TBR, so then she added it to hers.  I added it because I had seen a film about the Cottingley fairies when I was younger and found the story fascinating. Mom hadn’t heard anything about them.

1917… It was inexplicable, impossible, but it had to be true—didn’t it? When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, claim to have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when one of the great novelists of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, becomes convinced of the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a national sensation, their discovery offering hope to those longing for something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war. Frances and Elsie will hide their secret for many decades. But Frances longs for the truth to be told.

One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story it tells of two young girls who mystified the world. But it is the discovery of an old photograph that leads her to realize how the fairy girls’ lives intertwine with hers, connecting past to present, and blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, can Olivia find a way to believe in herself?

Our Thoughts

Mom gave this book ★★★★ and I gave it ★★½. While this was the sort of story Mom enjoys, I found myself wishing throughout for more real fairies.

The Cottingley Secret occupies a very particular genre. You’ve got two timelines – a ‘historical fiction’ timeline that somehow connects to a ‘contemporary fiction’ timeline in which a woman learns something about herself through the story told in the historical timeline. This sort of narrative generally doesn’t appeal to me, but I have read one or two books that follow this structure (I think Kristin Hannah’s books are mostly like this?). Mom likes this style, as she found the back and forth kept her interested in the two stories.

I was willing to tolerate this style because of the promise of fairies, and the Irish and British settings. Mom and I have both visited and fallen in love with Ireland (on separate occasions). We agreed that reading a book about a place you’ve actually been gives the story more of a magical feeling. In addition to the setting, we liked Olivia’s bookshop. I have visited many quaint and precious bookshops, but I would still love to visit hers! The descriptions of Olivia’s window display and the plants growing on their own especially appealed to us.

We found the furor of belief surrounding the photographs pretty incredible. I had always wondered how educated adults let themselves be taken in by the photos of two young girls. The Cottingley Secret does a good job at explaining how the atmosphere of war may have fueled those beliefs. Mom also appreciated the exploration of remembering and not remembering through the character of Olivia’s grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s.

The Cottingley Secret is essentially historical fiction. But I like my fairies to be real! So, I can’t help but grumble a bit (though it’s my own fault for wishing the story to be something it’s not). The thing is, Frances does actually see fairies. However, I found the description of her sightings to be lacking. I never felt the belief that Frances supposedly felt. The few moments where she really does glimpse fairies felt, to me, largely incidental to the story. Mom didn’t have the same feeling. She was able to use more of her own imagination to bring those scenes to life.

Final Thoughts

Mom enjoyed this book, and I suppose it’s alright for what it is 😉  Have you heard of the Cottingley Fairies or read any books about them?

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