The title Seven Days in May refers to the time that Brooke, Sydney and Edward spent on their fated journey from New York to Liverpool aboard the Lusitania, before it was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915.
Even before we step aboard the luxury line we have a high society wedding in the offing. Edward Thorpe-Tracey, an impoverished owner of a fine estate is to marry Brooke Sinclair who has inherited a fortune from her father. Edward is hoping that the marriage will save the estate and provide a solid future for his disabled sister when he takes on the title Lord Northbrook. Brooke and her younger sister Sydney are dissimilar in many ways and Sydney is in disgrace having been arrested for her suffragette activities. Of course this has to be kept firmly under wraps so not to frighten the groom-to-be.
In a separate storyline we are in England, in Room 40 where codes are cracked and German dispatches are passed up the chain of control. Isabel Nelson has recently joined Room 40 on the helpful reference from her previous employer. She’s worked hard at evening classes to learn secretarial skills and is thrilled to be in the company of the other men and women undertaking such secret work; this young woman with a past feels like she’s making a difference to the war effort.
This is a book that promises a great deal and it certainly made for an interesting read, particularly as the author was moved to write the story having heard the stories of her Great Grandfather’s survival against the odds, of the sinking of the Lusitania as a boy. The story of the ship, the clothes and the taciturn captain all had an authenticity about them but the romantic tales that moved so many other readers fell a bit flat for me. Perhaps, despite all appearances, I am too romantic in that I never quite fully bought in that Brooke’s freedom and money in exchange for a title was the sum of this young woman’s ambition. Nor could I quite buy the fact that young Isabel Nelson was taken under the collective wings of the code-breakers and taught in such a short space of time how to not only transcribe them, but have time on the side to plot ship’s passages and run messages up to the head of the Admiralty himself, Winston Churchill.
For me the most moving scenes were of the tragedy itself. Here the writing really came alive with the scenes on the ship, and in the water having a feeling of authenticity that I had doubted earlier in the book. It was at this point the key characters fully came to life and behaved in a much more realistic fashion too. On balance, despite my reservations about the likelihood of Isabel’s talents being given an outlet so early on, and at that time in history, I preferred the storyline set in Room 40. I find the work carried out here fascinating and of course its origins gave rise to the work carried out at Bletchley Park during the next war, something which has become much better known over recent years. This area of interest was more to my taste than the one between the sisters and the impoverished Lord although I did enjoy meeting some of the hapless travellers on board as well as getting a sense of the safety measures taken given that even before they set sail there was some indication of the intention of the Germans.
Seven Days in May made for an interesting start to my 20 Books of Summer 2018 reading challenge and one that definitely gave me a deeper knowledge of this act which motivated the US to join forces against the Germans in WWI.