Title: The Paris Winter
Author: Imogen Robertson
No. of Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Fiction, Thriller
Origins: St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: 18 November 2014
Bottom Line: Dark with moments of comedy and always entertaining
“Maud Heighton came to Lafond’s famous Academie to paint, and to flee the constraints of her small English town. It took all her courage to escape, but Paris, she quickly realizes, is no place for a light purse. While her fellow students enjoy the dazzling decadence of the Belle Epoque, Maud slips into poverty. Quietly starving, and dreading another cold Paris winter, she stumbles upon an opportunity when Christian Morel engages her as a live-in companion to his beautiful young sister, Sylvie. Maud is overjoyed by her good fortune. With a clean room, hot meals, and an umbrella to keep her dry, she is able to hold her head high as she strolls the streets of Montmartre. No longer hostage to poverty and hunger, Maud can at last devote herself to her art. But all is not as it seems. Christian and Sylvie, Maud soon discovers, are not quite the darlings they pretend to be. Sylvie has a secret addiction to opium and Christian has an ominous air of intrigue. As this dark and powerful tale progresses, Maud is drawn further into the Morels’ world of elegant deception. Their secrets become hers, and soon she is caught in a scheme of betrayal and revenge that will plunge her into the darkness that waits beneath this glittering city of light.”
Thoughts: Stories taking place in turn-of-the-century Paris tend to glamorize the life of a starving artist. The night life, the camaraderie – it all has a vibe to it that makes the era so popular. In The Paris Winter, Maud’s experiences turn this idea on its head. There are no cafes or soirees for her. She can barely find enough money to eat one meal a day, let alone while away her time drinking alcohol or coffee. She is quite literally starving herself in an effort to become a better painter, and a reader experiences it all along with her.
The desperation Maud feels before she becomes Sylvie’s live-in companion is palpable. Even the doubts Maud has about entering into this unusual situation cannot overshadow her need to find a better place to live and a chance to earn money. That it is too good to be true is a given, but one cannot fault her for her decision because the girl is all but fainting from hunger.
While Ms. Robertson could gloss over Maud’s poverty or use it to tell a familiar cautionary tale of dreams coming true, she instead uses it to develop Maud into a fierce character. The woman she ends up becoming at the end of the novel is nothing like the meek girl from the beginning. More importantly, her journey is every bit as circuitous as real life. What she and her friends experience, at the hands of the Morel siblings and through their own decisions, are life-altering scenarios that Ms. Robertson treats with the seriousness that they deserve.
The Paris Winter is not all darkness and despair however. It is first and foremost a novel, and more importantly an entertaining one. Maud’s little band of friends provides a break in the tension and add a slight comedic presence with their unlikely friendship. In addition, it may not be the vibrant Paris experience one may expect from such a novel, but the story still occurs in Paris. One can never extinguish the Parisian mystique no matter how dark and dirty the story may get.
The Paris Winter is an unlikely amalgam of genres. It is a thriller in the guise of historical fiction; it is also a coming-of-age story. Maud must dig deep to survive everything the city throws at her. There are enough twists and turns to keep readers guessing, and the comedic scenes interspersed throughout the story prevent it from becoming too serious. The Paris Winter is a wonderful, old-fashioned story that tackles some serious subjects but never strays too far from its original plot and always stays entertaining.