The Last Telegramby Liz Trenow
"A book to savor."-Kate Furnivall, author of The Russian Concubine
We all make mistakes. Some we can fix.
But what happens when we can't?
Decades ago, as Nazi planes dominated the sky, Lily Verner made a terrible choice. She's tried to forget, but now an unexpected event pulls her back to the 1940s British countryside. She finds herself/b>/b>
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"A book to savor."-Kate Furnivall, author of The Russian Concubine
We all make mistakes. Some we can fix.
But what happens when we can't?
Decades ago, as Nazi planes dominated the sky, Lily Verner made a terrible choice. She's tried to forget, but now an unexpected event pulls her back to the 1940s British countryside. She finds herself remembering the brilliant colors of the silk she helped to weave at her family's mill, the relentless pressure of the worsening war, and the kind of heartbreaking loss that stops time.
In this evocative novel of love and consequences, Lily finally confronts the disastrous decision that has haunted her all these years. The Last Telegram uncovers the surprising truth about how the stories we weave about our lives are threaded with truth, guilt, and forgiveness.
"Sparked my interest from the start...charming."-Sharon Knoth, Between the Covers, Harbor Springs, MI
"This book will easily appeal to fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and I can see it quickly becoming a favorite of book clubs."-Billie Bloebaum, Powell's Books
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Read an Excerpt
The History of Silk owes much to the fairer sex. The Chinese Empress Hsi Ling is credited with its first discovery, in 2640 BC. It is said that a cocoon fell from the mulberry tree, under which she was sitting, into her cup of tea. As she sought to remove the cocoon its sticky threads started to unravel and cling to her fingers. Upon examining the thread more closely she immediately saw its potential and dedicated her life thereafter to the cultivation of the silkworm and production of silk for weaving and embroidery.
-The History of Silk by Harold Verner
Perhaps because death leaves so little to say, funeral guests seem to take refuge in platitudes. "He had a good innings...Splendid send-off...Very moving service...Such beautiful flowers...You are so wonderfully brave, Lily."
It's not bravery: my squared shoulders, head held high, that careful expression of modesty and gratitude. Not bravery, just determination to survive today and, as soon as possible, get on with what remains of my life. The body in the expensive coffin, lined with Verners' silk and decorated with lilies and now deep in the ground, is not the man I've loved and shared my life with for the past fifty-five years.
It is not the man who helped to put me back together after the shattering events of the war, who held my hand and steadied my heart with his wise counsel. The man who took me as his own and became a loving father and grandfather. The joy of our lives together helped us both to bury the terrors of the past. No, that person disappeared months ago, when the illness took its final hold. His death was a blessed release and I have already done my grieving. Or at least, that's what I keep telling myself.
After the service the house fills with people wanting to "pay their final respects." But I long for them to go, and eventually they drift away, leaving behind the detritus of a remembered life along with the half-drunk glasses, the discarded morsels of food.
Around me, my son and his family are washing up, vacuuming, emptying the bins. In the harsh kitchen light I notice a shimmer of gray in Simon's hair (the rest of it is dark, like his father's) and realize with a jolt that he must be well into middle age. His wife Louise, once so slight, is rather rounder than before. No wonder, after two babies. They deserve to live in this house, I think, to have more room for their growing family. But today is not the right time to talk about moving.
I go to sit in the drawing room as they have bidden me, and watch for the first time the slide show that they have created for the guests at the wake. I am mesmerized as the TV screen flicks through familiar photographs, charting his life from sepia babyhood through monochrome middle years and into a Technicolor old age, each image occupying the screen for just a few brief seconds before blurring into the next.
At first I turn away, finding it annoying, even insulting. What a travesty, I think, a long, loving life bottled into a slide show. But as the carousel goes back to the beginning and the photographs start to repeat themselves, my relief that he is gone and will suffer no more is replaced, for the first time since his death, by a dawning realization of my own loss.
It's no wonder I loved him so; such a good-looking man, active and energetic. A man of unlimited selflessness, of many smiles and little guile. Who loved every part of me, infinitely. What a lucky woman. I find myself smiling back, with tears in my eyes.
My granddaughter brings a pot of tea. At seventeen, Emily is the oldest of her generation of Verners, a clever, sensitive girl growing up faster than I can bear. I see in her so much of myself at that age: not exactly pretty in the conventional way-her nose is slightly too long-but striking, with smooth cheeks and a creamy complexion that flushes at the slightest hint of discomfiture. Her hair, the color of black coffee, grows thick and straight, and her dark inquisitive eyes shimmer with mischief or chill with disapproval. She has that determined Verner jawline that says "don't mess with me." She's tall and lanky, all arms and legs, rarely out of the patched jeans and charity-shop jumpers that seem to be all the rage with her generation these days. Unsophisticated but self-confident, exhaustingly energetic-and always fun. Had my own daughter lived, I sometimes think, she would have been like Emily.
At this afternoon's wake the streak of crimson she's emblazoned into the flick of her fringe was like an exotic bird darting among the dark suits and dresses. Soon she will fly, as they all do, these independent young women. But for now she indulges me with her company and conversation, and I cherish every moment.
She hands me a cup of weak tea with no milk, just how I like it, and then plonks herself down on the footstool next to me. We watch the slide show together for a few moments, and she says, "I miss Grandpa, you know. Such an amazing man. He was so full of ideas and enthusiasm-I loved the way he supported everything we did, even the crazy things." She's right, I think to myself.
"He always used to ask me about stuff," she goes on. "He was always interested in what I was doing with myself. Not many grown-ups do that. A great listener."
As usual my smart girl goes straight to the heart of it. It's something I'm probably guilty of, not listening enough. "You can talk to me, now that he's gone," I say, a bit too quickly. "Tell me what's new."
"You really want to know?"
"Yes, I really do," I say. Her legs, in heart-patterned black tights, seem to stretch for yards beyond her miniskirt, and my heart swells with love for her, the way she gives me her undivided attention for these moments of proper talking time.
"Have I told you I'm going to India?" she says.
"My goodness, how wonderful," I say. "How long for?"
"Only a month," she says airily.
I'm achingly envious of her youth, her energy, her freedom. I wanted to travel too at her age, but war got in the way. My thoughts start to wander until I remember my commitment to listening. "What are you going to do there?"
"We're going to an orphanage. In December, with a group from college. To dig the foundations for a cowshed," she says triumphantly. I'm puzzled, and distracted by the idea of elegant Emily wielding a shovel in the heat, her slender hands calloused and dirty, hair dulled by dust.
"Why does an orphanage need a cowshed?"
"So they can give the children fresh milk. It doesn't get delivered to the doorstep like yours does, Gran," she says reprovingly. "We're raising money to buy the cows."
"How much do you need?"
"About two thousand. Didn't I tell you? I'm doing a sponsored parachute jump." The thought of my precious Emily hanging from a parachute harness makes me feel giddy, as if capsized by some great gust of wind. "Don't worry, it's perfectly safe," she says. "It's with a professional jump company, all above board. I'll show you."
She returns with her handbag, an impractical affair covered in sequins, extracts a brochure, and gives it to me. I pretend to read it, but the photographs of cheerful children preparing for their jumps seem to mock me and make me even more fearful. She takes the leaflet back. "You should know all about parachutes, Gran. You used to make them, Dad said."
"Well," I start tentatively, "weaving parachute silk was our contribution to the war effort. It kept us going when lots of other mills closed." I can picture the weaving shed as if from above, each loom with its wide white spread, shuttles clacking back and forth, the rolls of woven silk growing almost imperceptibly thicker with each turn of the weighted cloth beam.
"But why did they use silk?"
"It's strong and light, packs into a small bag, and unwraps quickly because it's so slippery." My voice is steadying now and I can hear that old edge of pride. Silk seems still to be threaded through my veins. Even now I can smell its musty, nutty aroma, see the lustrous intensity of its colors-emerald, aquamarine, gold, crimson, purple-and recite the exotic names like a mantra: brigandine, bombazine, brocatelle, douppion, organzine, pongee, schappe.
She studies the leaflet again, peering through the long fringe that flops into her eyes. "It says here the parachutes we're going to use are of high-quality one-point-nine-ounce ripstop nylon. Why didn't they use nylon in those days? Wouldn't it have been cheaper?"
"They hadn't really invented nylon by then, not good enough for parachutes. You have to get it just right for parachutes," I say and then, with a shiver, those pitiless words slip into my head after all these years. Get it wrong and you've got dead pilots.
She rubs my arm gently with her fingertips to smooth down the little hairs, looking at me anxiously. "Are you cold, Gran?"
"No, my lovely, it's just the memories." I send up a silent prayer that she will never know the dreary fear of war, when all normal life is suspended, when the impossible becomes ordinary, when every decision seems to be a matter of life or death, when good-byes are often for good.
It tends to take the shine off you.
A little later Emily's brother appears and loiters in his adolescent way, then comes and sits by me and holds my hand in silence. I am touched to the core. Then her father comes in, looking weary. His filial duties complete, he hovers solicitously. "Is there any more we can do, Mum?" I shake my head and mumble my gratitude for the nth time today.
"We'll probably be off in a few minutes. Sure you'll be all right?" he says. "We can stay a little longer if you like."
Finally they are persuaded to go. Though I love their company, I long for peace, to stop being the brave widow, to release my rictus smile. I make a fresh pot of tea, and there on the kitchen table is the leaflet Emily has left, presumably to prompt my sponsorship. I hide it under the newspaper and pour the tea, but my trembling hands cause a minor storm in the teacup. I decant the tea into a mug and carry it with two hands to my favorite chair.
In the drawing room, I am relieved to find that the slide show has been turned off, the TV screen returned to its innocuous blackness. From the wide bay window looking westward across the water meadows is an expanse of greenery and sky that always helps me to think more clearly.
The Chestnuts is a fine, double-bayed Edwardian villa, built of mellow Suffolk bricks that look gray in the rain but in sunlight take on the color of golden honey. Not grand, just comfortable and well-proportioned, reflecting how my parents saw themselves, their place in the world. They built it on a piece of spare land next to the silk mill during a particularly prosperous period just after the Great War. "It's silk umbrellas, satin facings, and black mourning crepe we have to thank for this place," my father, always the merchant, would cheerfully and unself-consciously inform visitors.
Stained-glass door panels throw kaleidoscope patterns of light into generous hallways, and the drawing room is sufficiently spacious to accommodate Mother's baby grand as well as three chintz sofas clustered companionably around a handsome marble fireplace.
To the mill side of the house, when I was a child, was a walled kitchen garden, lush with aromatic fruit bushes and deep green salads. On the other side, an ancient orchard provided an autumn abundance of apples and pears, so much treasured during the long years of rationing, and a grass tennis court in which worm casts ensured such an unpredictable bounce of the ball that our games could never be too competitive. The parade of horse chestnut trees along its lower edge still bloom each May with ostentatious candelabra of flowers.
At the back of the house is the conservatory, restored after the doodlebug disaster but now much in need of repair. From the terrace, brick steps lead to a lawn that rolls out toward the water meadows. Through these meadows, yellow with cowslips in spring and buttercups in summer, meanders the river, lined with gnarled willows that appeared to my childhood eyes like processions of crook-backed witches. It is Constable country.
"Will you look at this view?" my mother would exclaim, stopping on the landing with a basket of laundry, resting it on the generous windowsill and stretching her back. "People pay hundreds of guineas for paintings of this, but we see it from our windows every day. Never forget, little Lily, how lucky you are to live here."
No, Mother, I have never forgotten.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
The room smells of old whiskey and wood smoke and reverberates with long-ago conversations. Family secrets lurk in the skirting boards. This is where I grew up. I've never lived anywhere else, and after nearly eighty years it will be a wrench to leave. The place is full of memories: of my childhood, of him, of loving and losing.
As I walk ever more falteringly through the hallways, echoes of my life-mundane and strange, joyful and dreadful-are like shadows, always there, following my footsteps. Now that he is gone, I am determined to make a new start. No more guilt and heart-searching. No more "what-ifs." I need to make the most of the few more years that may be granted to me.
What People are Saying About This
"The Last Telegram is wonderful. It illustrates evocatively life on the home front and the little known aspect of silk production during the war. More fundamentally, it is a novel about the human spirit Liz Trenow paints with able prose a picture of the prejudices that bind us and the love that sets us free, and she does so with heartfelt characters and vivid, scenic detail that will not soon be forgotten. Splendid!" - Pam Jenoff, author of The Kommandant's Girl
"I thought it was great! it sparked my interest right from the start and the story never lagged...charming." - Sharon Knoth, Between the Covers, Harbor Springs, MI
"Liz Trenow's The Last Telegram gives you an authentic feel of the stresses that must have dominated civilian life in England during World War II...while the reader will learn a lot about silk, it is the interconnected relationships between the characters that really engage the reader." - Nicola Rooney, Nicola's Books, Ann Arbor, MI
"This book will easily appeal to fans of 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' and I can see it quickly becoming a favorite of book clubs." - Billie Bloebaum, Powell's Books, Portland, OR
"Trenow's first novel chronicles civilian life in England during the terrors of war while also weaving a beautifully moving love story. Reminiscent in tone and subject of Nicholas Spark's The Notebook (1996) and Ian McEwan's Atonement (2002), Lily's tale will resonate with fans of each." - BooklistOnline.com
"Trenow, who serves as a perfect example of the old adage that you should write what you know-she's the descendant of generations of weavers-has penned a mellifluous, impeccably researched narrative." - Kirkus
Meet the Author
Liz Trenow is the author of The Forgotten Seamstress and The Poppy Factory. As Liz Curry, she worked as a journalist for national and regional newspapers, BBC radio, and television news, followed by a career in PR and communications. Liz lives in Essex, England, with her husband.
Susan Duerden, an Audie Award-winning audiobook narrator, has won multiple AudioFile Earphones Awards for her work. Susan's career spans film, television, voice-over, and animation. She has played critically acclaimed, award-winning theatrical roles internationally, including in London's West End and Off-Broadway.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Lily Vernow lived through World War II and this is her story. Her family owned a silk weaving factory where during the war they wove parachute silk. Lily’s brother, John, takes in three Jewish boy refuges from Germany and they start working at the factory. One of these boys, Stefan, catches Lily’s heart and their love grows. But even in their safe little town being a Jew from Germany could be a problem. I am not sure I can describe how much I enjoyed this book. The Last Telegram was perfectly written, telling a beautiful story of love, family, loss, and guilt during World War II. Liz Trenow did an amazing job teaching me about silk. Every chapter gave facts about where silk came from and how it was used in the 1940’s, but yet the story was not about silk. I loved Lily. From her journey into silk as a young girl, to an old lady who had survived it all she was my favorite character. The relationship between Stefan and Lily showed exactly how much they were meant for each other. The chapters with their story in them were my absolute favorite. The Last Telegram is perfect. I was captured by the first page. This is a story I am sure I will read over and over.
I bought this book because of the nice comments and the fact that it was $2.99. It would not be much money wasted if I didn't like it. I was pleasantly surprised. It is nicely written with interesting characters and a likeable but flawed heroine (which only makes her more likeable and real). Women will especially like this book. The author has a talent for writing about time and place and making all the details of the silk factory interesting and vivid. Though this is a largely a plot-driven book, but the author's talents could certainly allow her to write a more character-driven one. I look forward to reading more of her books.
This talented author tells a tale of love and loss that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Tears will be shed!
This is a story about silk, parachutes and love in England during the beginning and into WW II. The story, told in retrospect by the 80+ year old protagonist in the present day, is quite compelling. It is a very good read!!
I liked the characters and their stories. In addtion, I learned about the silk industry in Great Britain. A+++ job.
This was a really good book! It started off interesting, and kept my interest through the whole story. I like coming of age stories, and I enjoyed reading about something different involving WWII (the silk stuff). An enjoyable way to pass some time!
Stayed with me afterward.
As the book opens, we meet Lily Verner directly after the funeral of her husband of 55 years. As her 17-year-old granddaughter Emily helps her sort through her belongings (she is clearing out the house for her son and his family to move into), they come across a box that, in partnership with Emily informing her that she will soon do a parachute jump, trigger Lily's reminiscing about her wartime experiences... East Anglia in the 1930's and 40's is the time. Lily hopes to study in Geneva, but her beloved father explains that the times are too uncertain right now for her to go abroad. Her brother John recently came home from school and informed them that the Nazis recently passed a law in Vienna that makes it illegal for Jewish people to own businesses, and there is no doubt that more trouble is coming to Europe from the Nazis. The family owns a silk mill, and Lily finds herself working there, apprenticing under Gwen, who becomes a great friend, although Lily DOES find herself initially shocked at one of Gwen's revelations. Lily meets Robert "Robbie" Cameron at a party that her brother takes her to. He is wealthy, articulate, and flies planes as a hobby. He is also VERY interested in Lily herself. After a meeting with the family, Robbie convinces them to begin manufacturing parachute silk. This will keep the factory solvent during what will inevitably turn into a war. When John tells the family of hundreds of Jewish children brought over from Germany and Poland who are now in a camp because their sponsor families reneged, he and Lily eventually convince their father to bring two or three boys over to work at the mill. Stefan, Kurt and Walter are excited at the idea of being able to make their own living and get out of the camp. They are set up in their own house, and quickly catch on to the intricate work involved in the manufacturing of silk, especially the high degree of accuracy involved in the making of parachute silk: "Get it right and you save lives, sir. Get it wrong, and you've got dead pilots" As we travel with Lily through the war years in this first-person account, there is romance, romance gone wrong, a picture of the prejudice that EVERY German begins to encounter, friendship, loss, perseverance, and the ties of family. There are excerpts from Lily's father's unpublished book The History of Silk at each chapter heading: "The silk we love for its softness and beauty is also one of the strongest and toughest fibers in the world. It has a strength of around five grams per denier compared with three grams per denier for a drawn wire of soft steel. It has much more elasticity than cotton or flax, and its resistance to shearing or twisting forces is considerably greater than that of the new rayons and nylons." I enjoyed learning about Lily's life and came away with a new understanding about silk's history and its manufacture (I DO enjoy learning new things even as I read an entertaining story). With its evocative language, and a bit of redemption at the end, this title would be a good read for anyone interested in the time period and/or any reader that likes a flowing character study. It may also tug at your heartstrings, so be prepared. :) QUOTE: The room smells of old whiskey and wood smoke and reverberates with long-ago conversations. Family secrets lurk in the skirting boards. Writing: 4 out of 5 stars Plot: 4.5 out of 5 stars Characters: 3.5 out of 5 stars Reading Immersion: 4 out 5 stars BOOK RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
This 290 page novel is perfectly edited. There are so many good reviews, I was looking forward to reading this book. It did not meet my expectations. It was rather boring. WW II and the depression are my favorite eras to read about when I am not engrossed in a mystery or suspense novel. There were so many my dear ones, sweet one, darling child - girl - boy and other overly sachrine pet names, it got on my nerves. There really wasn' t much about the war itself, other than one scene which was very sad and tramatic, the rest of the war was about how it impacted and inconvenienced the family. I was surprized there was premartial sex and quite risque talk for this time period. Another shocker was the lesbian friend. There is tragic death, violence, a really hateful, so called gentleman and a brother, who seemed to want to sell his sister's body for a factory contract. This book is set in England during the entire war. It is about an 80 year old woman and what she remembers about the war and her family's silk factory, which was coverted to make parachutes during the war. She carries a lot of guilt over some bad decisions she made as plant manager and tratment of her friends. I found this book rather sad. Before each chapter there is a paragraph on the history of silk, taken from a book her father wrote, before his death. This is not a bad book, it just was not what I expected and it seemed....well, a bit boring. There is quite of adult subject matter, but none of it is very explicit. AD
Thank you B&N for this Daily Deal or Spotlight offering.I truly enjoyed and was recommending before I even finished. OMG, we, in the USA are so lucky to not have faced so much as in Europe at this time. I am so sorry Lilly had to live w/ this horrible guilt for so much of her life. I am so glad she was so lucky to have so many people love her so deeply in so many ways. What a good story to explain silk production & it's importance in WWII. I laughed, I cried; I will look for other works by this author.
I will long recall this book. Love the well-developed characters and story line. A love story with interesting facts I would never have read about WWI and the silk industry.
Lovely story of life on the homefront in England during WWII with typical loves and losses. Revolves around the silk weaving industry for parachutes. Characters somewhat stereotypical, but didn't diminish my enjoyment of the story. Easy read.
This is such a great book, written well, it's hard to believe this the authors first novel. I loved how the author wove the story of silk throughout. I learned so much about the process of silk weaving and the author did a great job making it very interesting. Great love story! It is a story of love, forgiveness, guilt, pleasure, and loss. Loved it!
Wonderful vivid reading both visually and emotionally. Absolutely fantastic and easily read. Hope this new author brings us something new again soon!
We had curtains made of parachute silk in our '50s ultra modern house, designed by my father. He made the curtains, too! The fabric was brought over from England, where he was stationed during WWII, at the end of the war. The silk filtered the light most elegantly, through huge single paned glass windows.
I read the first Trenow book, the Forgotten Seamstress, and liked it, but I really loved The Last Telegram. We are given a view of life during WWII and the efforts by the people for work and love. I also like Trenow's style of bringing in elements without actually coming right out and stating something has happened. For instance, we aren't told who Lily was married to when the book opens, but end the end, we learn through a very casual name being mentioned. No spoiler here! Read the book, you'll love it.
Good easy read quite enjoyable
I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot about silk. There were some unexpected parts that kept you thinking. Very enjoyable read.
I couldnt put this book down.
Interesting and lovely tale. Kept my interest. Characters I could imagine and a storyline I wont forget. Highly recommend this story!
I liked the characters and the storyline. Finished it quickly, didn't want to put it down.
I loved this book from the first page to the very last. Every once in a while a book will come along that you know you'll always remember. This is one. Don't miss it.