The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames

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What to expect

A gripping memoir and revelatory investigation into the history of the Foundling Hospital and one girl who grew up in its care – the author’s own mother.

‘Extraordinary … A fascinating, moving book: part history of the Foundling Hospital and the development of child psychology, part Cowan’s own story, and part that of Cowan’s mother’ LUCY SCHOLES, TELEGRAPH

Growing up in a wealthy enclave outside San Francisco, Justine Cowan’s life seems idyllic. But her mother’s unpredictable temper drives Justine from home the moment she is old enough to escape. It is only after her mother dies that she finds herself pulling at the threads of a story half-told – her mother’s upbringing in London’s Foundling Hospital. Haunted by this secret history, Justine travels across the sea and deep into the past to discover the girl her mother once was.

Here, with the vividness of a true storyteller, she pieces together her mother’s childhood alongside the history of the Foundling Hospital: from its idealistic beginnings in the eighteenth century, how it influenced some of England’s greatest creative minds – from Handel to Dickens, its shocking approach to childcare and how it survived the Blitz only to close after the Second World War.

This was the environment that shaped a young girl then known as Dorothy Soames, who was left behind by a mother forced by stigma and shame to give up her child; who withstood years of physical and emotional abuse, dreaming of
escape as German bombers circled the skies, unaware all along that her own mother was fighting to get her back.

‘As a social history of the Foundling Hospital, this is a fascinating read’ SUNDAY TIMES

‘Page-turning and profoundly moving’ VIRGINIA NICHOLSON

‘Part-memoir, part-detective story, The Secret Life Of Dorothy Soames will break your heart then piece it back together again … Simultaneously exploring her mother’s story of escape and the history of the Foundling Hospital, this is an unforgettable read’ STYLIST

‘A gripping true story’ Christina Baker Kline, bestselling author of ORPHAN TRAIN

‘Breathtaking’ Adrienne Brodeur, bestselling author of WILD GAME

Critics Review

  • Page-turning and profoundly moving. Her meticulous research has uncovered a strand of British history and she brings it sharply and vividly to life through her personal quest.

    Virginia Nicholson
  • Part-memoir, part-detective story, The Secret Life Of Dorothy Soames will break your heart then piece it back together again … Simultaneously exploring her mother’s story of escape and the history of the Foundling Hospital, this is an unforgettable read

    Stylist
  • An extraordinary memoir . . . Although telling a deeply personal story, Cowan painstakingly gathers her material as if assembling testimony for a day in court. She is also admirably honest about her fraught relationship with her mother . . . The result is this fascinating, moving book; part history of the Foundling Hospital and the development of child psychology, part Cowan’s own story, and part that of Dorothy Soames (the name Cowan’s mother was given at the hospital)

    Daily Telegraph
  • The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames is the gripping true story of a daughter’s quest to find the truth about her mother’s origins-and, in the process, come to terms with her own life and choices. As she uncovers an increasingly dramatic tale of abuse, escape, and recovery, Justine Cowan must grapple with her complex feelings about this woman who, as she comes to learn, never had a real childhood of her own. A riveting, heartbreaking, and ultimately healing journey of discovery

    Christina Baker Kline, author of #1 New York Times bestseller Orphan Train
  • Part investigative journalism, part emotional excavation, this breathtaking and heartbreaking book tells the story of a daughter’s need to understand her difficult mother. An unexpected and original addition to the mother/daughter memoir oeuvre, The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames is both moving and artful, rewarding its readers page after page

    Adrienne Brodeur, bestselling author of Wild Game: My Mother, Her Secret and Me
  • Cowan debuts with an impressive memoir about the unearthing of her deceased mother’s secret past and a generations-long cycle of family trauma. This frank account of a real-life Dickensian dystopia captivates at every turn

    Publishers Weekly

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