All of Natasha Lester’s novels have featured ground-breaking women. Those ahead of their time – battling society’s norms and often weighed down by the expectations of those they love.
Her books I’ve enjoyed most have probably featured women with more virtuous pursuits (and I don’t mean to imply beauty products/make-up or designing fashion aren’t lofty life goals). Her first book, A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald featured a woman battling to get into medical school in the early 1920s; her last, The French Photographer a female war photographer.
Her books unfold in multiple timeframes, usually the past and present(ish). Her latest, The Paris Secret is no different and is probably my favourite since her first. Not only did I enjoy the characters and their stories, but Lester’s writing is quite exquisite.
The Paris Secret
by Natasha Lester
Published by Hachette Australia
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction
England, 1939 Talented pilot Skye Penrose joins the British war effort where she encounters her estranged sister, Liberty, and childhood soulmate Nicholas Crawford, now engaged to enigmatic Frenchwoman Margaux Jourdan.
Paris, 1947 Designer Christian Dior unveils his extravagant first collection to a world weary of war and grief. He names his debut fragrance, Miss Dior, in tribute to his sister, Catherine, who worked for the French Resistance.
Present day Australian fashion conservator Kat Jourdan discovers a secret wardrobe filled with priceless Dior gowns in her grandmother's vacant cottage. As she delves into the mystery, Kat begins to doubt everything she thought she knew about her beloved grandmother.
The book opens with a prequel and I was immediately enchanted. We’re introduced to Margaux, a model for the burgeoning talent that is Christian Dior in 1947, during a runway show. Lester’s appreciation for fashion is evident here as well as her beautifully descriptive prose and ability to place us firmly in the book’s setting.
The salon wears its muted palette of pearl grey and white as subtly as a concealed zipper. The Louis XVI medallion chairs, the gilt picture frames topped with fontages bows and the Belle Epoque chandeliers all seem to declare that time has stopped and it would be best to pay attention. Unfurled fans rustle like premature applause, and the air is scented with perfume and Gauloises and anticipation. Everywhere, skins are atingle. p viii
“… declare that time has stopped and it would be best to pay attention”…. *swoon* Like I said – I was smitten.
There’s a weightiness to the opening though. Margaux is mourning lost loved ones and seems strangely distant from the events unfolding around her.
We initially meet Skye in 1928. She’s 10 and her sister Liberty is 9. Nicholas, who’s 11yrs of age, has just arrived in Cornwall from New York with his mother and aunt. We spend some time with the children and it gives readers insight into the relationship between Skye and Nicholas, who are essentially inseparable for the next four years.
They lay on their backs in the darkest, deepest part, where nothing could be seen. They were silent for only a moment before they began to tell stories that couldn’t be told out in the light. p 10
Then we fast forward to the prelude to war. I don’t make any secret of my dislike of historical fiction. Indeed I’d shout it from my rooftop if I could clamour up there safely. However… Lester never fails to enthral me with stuff I had no idea was interesting. Last book it was war correspondents and photographers. Here it’s the Air Transport Auxiliary and their support role for the RAF.
When we hear of women’s roles in previous wars they seemed to be very much behind the scenes in caring professions – nurses and the like, or stepping up in factories while the blokes are off defending the country. So I was quite fascinated to read about the small group of women transporting planes around the UK during the war.
Skye is a delightful character. She’s estranged from her sister Liberty by the time the war starts and (quite frankly) Liberty seems a little sociopathic, so it’s kind-of a good thing. Though she reappears of course.
And finally there’s Kat (who we meet in 2012). She’s a 39yr old Australian mum to two young girls she co-parents with her ex and she’s devoted to her grandmother Margaux who raised her.
Coming across the Dior collection at her grandmother’s cottage in Cornwall is timely as she’s contacted by a historian and author (Elliot) around the same time who’s researching Margaux and the Penrose sisters.
I read this in a sitting and really had no idea where Lester was going to take us as she unpicks the history and relationships of Skye, Nicholas and their contemporaries. We learn some of it from Skye (in the past) and some via Elliot.
Lester does perhaps gloss over some of the key elements towards the end, offering a kind-of a recap and I probably would have liked a little more time spent here because the events are quite pivotal. Having said that of course, there’s value in surprising readers with a change of pace. It can be shocking and devastating and doesn’t allow us to mourn until we’re done.
I adored our key characters – namely Skye and Kat (and Nicholas, though to a lesser degree). They felt very real and I was along with them for the ride.
The early part of this novel however—probably before I became enchanted with the story—was all about Lester’s writing. It’s glorious. I wanted to mark phrase after phrase. Some because they’re beautifully written and others because of the insight and commentary they offer. This – for example – from Skye and Liberty’s fortune-teller (and aviator) mother:
I can’t tell you anything you don’t already have inside you. The future isn’t a promise yet to be kept. It’s an act waiting to begin. Perhaps it’s already begun. p 22
I know Lester does a lot of research and it always shows. Here she plants us on the coast in Cornwall, at RAF bases and wartime London, into the dire life of those in concentration camps and to the glamour of post-war Paris. The settings all felt very real and despite my disinterest in all-things-historical, I was transported. This is such a beautiful novel.
The Paris Secret by Natasha Lester is published today by Hachette Australia.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.