December 21, 2015

Book Review: The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson

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.

Turn-of-the-century Paris conjures romantic visions but in The Paris Winter, Imogen Robertson paints a very different picture. For a single young woman on a very limited income, Paris was a harsh place to live. The main character, proud Maud, has come to Paris from England to learn how to paint. She doesn’t have enough money to eat and is in danger of starving or freezing during the winter. The live model at the academy, street-wise Yvette, scrapes by through legitimate and illegitimate means. The only woman who embodies the gaiety and light beauty of the Belle Epoque is lively Tanya, a Russian heiress and art student as well. But even she is in an economical quandary – either marry a rich Russian her father approves of or live in much reduced circumstances with the man she loves.

Together, these three women form an unlikely bond when sinister circumstances befall Maud. The writing is evocative and nuanced. I especially liked the vivid descriptions of paintings from a fictional catalogue preceding each chapter that foreshadowed plot points and fleshed out more subtle themes.

If you love art, especially the Impressionists, if you adore Paris, if you love historical fiction along the lines of Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterton, you will love The Paris Winter.

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