The best dual-timeline historical novels

The Books I Picked & Why

The Lost Letter

By Jillian Cantor

The Lost Letter

Why this book?

This is a heartbreaking, yet uplifting novel of love and survival inspired by real resistance workers during World War II Austria, and the mysterious love letter that connects generations of Jewish families. It takes place in both 1989 Los Angeles and 1938 Austria. I love this book because of Jillian’s beautiful writing, and her strong sense of place. I felt transported to WWII Austria, where I became deeply invested in the love story between Kristoff and Elena. I also enjoyed that the modern-day story takes place pre-internet, where a newly divorced woman, Katie, does hands-on research to learn more about an unusual WWII-era stamp. Both narratives weave together seamlessly. I was lucky to read this book while visiting my family in Switzerland, surrounded by the beauty of the Alps.


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Before We Were Yours

By Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours

Why this book?

This novel is based on a notorious real-life scandal: Georgia Tann, director of an adoption organization in Memphis, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country from 1924 until 1950. This heart-wrenching and affecting novel takes place in 1939 Memphis, Tennessee and present-day South Carolina. In the 1930s storyline, siblings who live on a shanty boat are taken to an orphanage, where they must survive cruel conditions. In the present day, a wealthy prosecutor digs through her family’s long-hidden history, leading her to a shocking truth. I love that this book deals with dark elements of American history, and at its heart is about the power of family ties. I’m close with my younger sister, and I love novels about sibling bonds.


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The Lost Apothecary

By Sarah Penner

The Lost Apothecary

Why this book?

This compelling novel weaves the narratives of three female protagonists over two timelines in a tale of poison, revenge, and secrets. It takes place in modern-day London, where an aspiring historian, Caroline, spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from her husband’s infidelity. It’s also set in eighteenth-century London, where a secret apothecary shop caters to women who want revenge on the men who’ve wronged them. I loved this book because the grittiness of 1791 London truly comes to life on the page, and Penner has a great eye for historical detail. It was reminiscent of the Dickens stories I loved to read as a literature major in college. Also, Eliza Fanning, the young protégé of the apothecary, Nella, is a character to root for. 


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Orphan Train

By Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train

Why this book?

I love books that focus on little-known aspects of American history. Orphan Train highlights the “orphan trains” that ran from East Coast cities to the farmlands of the Midwest from 1854 to 1929, carrying thousands of abandoned children. Some were adopted by loving families while others faced a much crueler fate. This novel takes place in 2011 Maine, where Molly is close to aging out of the foster care system, and she must help an elderly woman, Vivian, as a form of community service. It’s also told from Vivian’s perspective as a young Irish immigrant in 1929, New York, sent by train to an uncertain future. I loved this story because it is powerful, compelling, and dramatic. Christina Baker Kline is meticulous in her research, she’s one of my favorite authors. 


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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

By Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Why this book?

This novel takes place in present-day Los Angeles and 1950s to 1980s Old Hollywood. The aging and reclusive movie star Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. A newly-divorced magazine reporter, Monique, listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. I loved this novel because of its unique structure, which includes fictional snippets of newspapers, magazines, and gossip columns. Also, Taylor Jenkins Reid writes complex characters with heart, and Evelyn Hugo feels so alive on the page, she could be real. The story of Evelyn’s seven husbands is both heartbreaking and beautiful, and it ties into Monique’s past and future in a clever twist. I couldn’t put this book down. Not only was it bold and exciting, it was a tearjerker. 


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