A newly released historical-fiction novel demonstrates there’s a lot we don’t know about Jack London – not only about the author’s final years, but about his second wife Charmian, their life together, and even their controversial friendship with the 20th century’s most famous magician, Harry Houdini.
“The Secret Life of Mrs. London” reveals all that and more – more than you knew, more than you bargained for. Author and longtime Sonoma Valley resident Rebecca Rosenberg has spent years researching the story, not only at the state park’s Cottage House, House of Happy Walls and, of course, the Wolf House; but at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, where Charmian London’s diaries are kept.
Rosenberg will be reading from her new book on Thursday, March 15, with a 6:30 p.m. reception and 7 p.m. reading.
Rosenberg brings to the story an empathy for Charmian, telling the tale of the Londons through her eyes – in first-person present tense, for an immediacy rarely found in historical fiction.
“I wanted to bring past history into the present,” she said when reached by phone earlier this winter.
Rosenberg has proven an adept social media marketer, with posts that help promote the book – from Jack London’s birthday on Jan. 12 and Bessie Houdini’s on Jan. 22 to planting spicy rumors that the young author was an oyster pirate, and highlighting such unpleasant facts as that London was born out of wedlock, and his mother shot herself soon afterward.
The book is full of those titular “secrets,” not least of which is the affair that Charmian is thought to have had with Houdini following her husband’s death. It’s that affair which gives the book its title, and doubtless its market punch.
But Rosenberg denies it’s “fiction.” The would-be affair was first uncovered, she notes, by Kenneth Silverman, a Houdini biographer. Among the evidence are telling traces in Charmian’s own letters, which Rosenberg explored at the Huntington.
One of them, written when Charmian learns of Houdini’s death, is poignant: “I scan his lovely profile texture with a magnifying glass. Sad over my magic lover dead.”
“You know, just because I am portraying Charmian and the different feelings that she has doesn’t mean that I think that that’s a good idea to have affairs,” Rosenberg makes haste to add. “But I was trying to point out what the issues were with her that may have led her to do that.”
That’s the writer’s task, one which Rosenberg fulfills well. Though this is her first published novel, she and her husband also wrote “Lavender Fields of America.” (Lavender, it’s no surprise, pops up in the London novel, though Rosenberg won’t say it’s subliminal cross-marketing.) She’s also in the middle of writing another novel – but thanks to a Novel Writing Certificate from Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, she found the discipline to finish this one first, in just two years.
The initial wave of reviews has been positive, and Rosenberg has already scheduled a series of readings – squeezed between the first steps of rebuilding her and her husband’s Kenwood home, which was lost in the October fires.
The disaster, and her immersion in Jack and Charmian London, have given Rosenberg a sort of emotional distance even from her own accomplishments, and woes.
Launch with the Londons
“The Secret Life of Mrs. London,” by Rebecca Rosenberg (Lake Union, 2018), is available now on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com, and in local independent bookstores.
Launch Parties: The public is invited to two free launch parties in Sonoma County. Magician Frank Balzerak will start the party, while guests sample Jack London’s nibbles and libations. Trivia, prizes, and fun. Free tickets required, available on brownpapertickets.com as there is limited attendance.
March 8, 6:30 p.m. at Copperfield’s Books, Montgomery Village (www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3190014)
March 15, 6:30 p.m. at Readers’ Books, Sonoma (www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3184314)
Other launch parties in Sonoma County will be held on March 17 at Breathless Winery in Healdsburg, and in May at Jack London State Historic Park.
Additional information at rebecca-rosenberg.com.