Review: Paris Time Capsule by Ella Carey + Giveaway

paris time capsule by ella careyFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction, women’s fiction
Length: 290 pages
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Date Released: May 26, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

New York–based photographer Cat Jordan is ready to begin a new life with her successful, button-down boyfriend. But when she learns that she’s inherited the estate of a complete stranger—a woman named Isabelle de Florian—her life is turned upside down.

Cat arrives in Paris to find that she is now the owner of a perfectly preserved Belle Époque apartment in the ninth arrondissement, and that the Frenchwoman’s family knew nothing about this secret estate. Amid these strange developments, Cat is left with burning questions: Who was Isabelle de Florian? And why did she leave the inheritance to Cat instead of her own family?

As Cat travels France in search of answers, she feels her grasp on her New York life starting to slip. With long-buried secrets coming to light and an attraction to Isabelle de Florian’s grandson growing too intense to ignore, Cat will have to decide what to let go of, and what to claim as her own.

My Review:

The premise of this story is fascinating and even more amazing because it is true.

Just as in the story, in 2010 the Paris apartment of Madame Marthe de Florian was discovered completely untouched since World War II. Marthe de Florian had been a famous, or infamous, courtesan during France’s Belle Epoque, a period of change that encompassed the final decades of the 19th century, including the period in America known as “the Gay Nineties”, and ended with a bang at the outbreak of World War I. Marthe de Florian was one of the queens of that tumultuous era, and entertained artists and especially statesmen who kept her in grand style.

But she died in 1939, and her apartment was inherited by her son and granddaughter. And that’s where things get interesting, because sometime during the war Marthe’s granddaughter closed up the apartment and left Paris. She never returned to her grandmother’s apartment, but kept it untouched until her death in 2010.

Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini (1888)
Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini (1888)

When the apartment was opened, it was discovered to be a treasure-trove of life in Paris during the Belle Epoque, including a undiscovered masterpiece by Giovanni Boldini, a painting of Marthe de Florian in her gorgeous prime.

The apartment was called the “Parisian Time Capsule” in many articles about its discovery and its secrets.

The author of the novel Paris Time Capsule has taken the story of the discovery and woven a fantastic tapestry of a story, as the young American woman who inherits the apartment from her grandmother’s best friend undertakes a journey to discover why this unlooked for legacy has come to her, and not gone to the descendants of the owner. As Cat Jordan follows the trail of clues to her grandmother’s past, she uncovers secrets that have remained hidden since the dark days of Paris’ occupation in World War II. And through her journey, she finally learns to listen to the secrets of her own heart.

Escape Rating B+: I had a love/hate relationships with this book. I absolutely adored the premise, and would have whether it was true or not.

In fiction, Cat’s free-spirited grandmother Virginia was the best friend of Isabelle de Florian, Marthe’s fictional granddaughter. But whatever happened in Paris between Isabelle and Virginia, Virginia never spoke about it after the war. Cat has no idea who Isabelle de Florian was, or why she left this dusty jewel-box of an apartment to Virginia’s descendants rather than her own.

Cat’s first surprise is her inheritance. Cat has always had a love of period designs and period clothing, and the apartment is an absolute treat for her. She just can’t understand how it came to her in the first place. Especially since the second person she meets on her Parisian trip is the grandson of Isabelle de Florian. Neither Loic Archer nor his mother Sylvie had any idea that the apartment existed, but they are more than willing to abide by their matriarch’s wishes and let Cat have it.

But they share with Cat a desire to understand what happened, and why Isabelle never told them of the apartment or its secrets, not in the long years when money was very tight and the sale of the apartment would have saved Isabelle and Sylvie from poverty. Something doesn’t make sense to any of them.

And this is where we get into the part that drove me absolutely bonkers. It is to be expected in a story that is set up as we have seen so far that Loic and Cat would fall in love as they search for Isabelle de Florian’s secrets. It is even not an unexpected part of this journey that Cat would discover that the life she has been leading in New York, including her brand-new fiance, would turn out not to be right for her after all.

But what drove me absolutely nuts was the way that this part of the story was handled. Or perhaps a better description would be the way that the character of Cat’s fiance Christian was portrayed. It is obvious from our first meeting with Christian that he isn’t the right person for Cat. Not because Loic is better (he hasn’t even entered the picture yet) or even because Christian and his family are extremely wealthy and Cat is scraping by in a job she hates.

No, the problem is that Christian takes every opportunity to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) undermine Cat, her opinions, her decisions, her tastes and her ideas. He doesn’t want the Cat who actually exists, he wants a doll that he can dress up and parade around who will never challenge him because she is so grateful for his largesse. When he wants Cat’s attention, he tracks her down by GPS. When she wants his attention, he’s always busy working.

As the reader, I felt bludgeoned by just how wrong Christian is for Cat. It felt as if the author was trying to draw a parallel between the way that Christian treated Cat and the way that Marthe was kept by her gentlemen admirers. I started to feel a bit beaten about the head with the all-too-obviously drawn parallel, but it isn’t until well after Loic starts asking her questions that Cat’s self-talk finally begins to see the clue-by-four that I’ve been hit with from the first scene. It’s not just that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, it’s that Cat doesn’t even see that she’s paddling upstream and losing ground with every stroke.

Outside of the appalling business of Cat’s horrid choice in fiance, the rest of the story is an absolute gem. I sincerely mean that. Cat’s journey, with all of its twists and turns and dead ends, is a voyage back to the dark days at the beginning of the war. When Cat finally discovers the truth about the apartment and its seemingly unusual disposition, it all makes sense. A very sad and heartbreaking sense.

We know that Cat is the rightful heir after all, and we’re glad for her and sad for the reasons why it had to be.

And thank goodness that Cat finally gets a clue about her own love life before it is too late.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a paperback copy of Paris Time Capsule to one lucky U.S./Canadian commenter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.
***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

lovers at the chameleon club paris 1932 by francine proseFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction
Length: 453 pages
Publisher: Harper
Date Released: April 22, 2014
Purchasing Info: Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

A richly imagined and stunningly inventive literary masterpiece of love, art, and betrayal, exploring the genesis of evil, the unforeseen consequences of love, and the ultimate unreliability of storytelling itself.

Paris in the 1920s shimmers with excitement, dissipation, and freedom. It is a place of intoxicating ambition, passion, art, and discontent, where louche jazz venues like the Chameleon Club draw expats, artists, libertines, and parvenus looking to indulge their true selves. It is at the Chameleon where the striking Lou Villars, an extraordinary athlete and scandalous cross-dressing lesbian, finds refuge among the club’s loyal denizens, including the rising Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, the socialite and art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol; and the caustic American writer Lionel Maine.

As the years pass, their fortunes—and the world itself—evolve. Lou falls desperately in love and finds success as a race car driver. Gabor builds his reputation with startlingly vivid and imaginative photographs, including a haunting portrait of Lou and her lover, which will resonate through all their lives. As the exuberant twenties give way to darker times, Lou experiences another metamorphosis—sparked by tumultuous events—that will warp her earnest desire for love and approval into something far more.

My Review:

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is a portrait, not merely of the two individuals pictured in the photograph, but also of the City of Lights in the Jazz Age, the 1920s and 1930s. Hemingway’s Paris. Picasso’s Paris. The Paris of the famous “Lost Generation”.

The portrait is drawn through the eyes of four disparate individuals who sometimes connect, and sometimes push against each other, until the Fall of Paris to the Germans and the subsequent division between collaboration and resistance push them all toward a final climax.

It’s also a story about the mutability of memory, and the way that eyewitnesses to the same event often remember totally different factors, some because they can’t get out of their own perspective as the center of the universe, some to protect the innocent, and some to protect the guilty. Particularly when they are the guilty parties themselves.

Time, in this case, both heals all wounds and wounds all heels.

Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932 by Brassaï
Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932 by Brassaï

The story revolves around the fictionalized character of Lou (Louisianne) Villars, purported to be the villain who revealed the location of the terminus of the Maginot Line to the Germans. But that’s not where Lou’s story begins. She begins as a young French girl who would quite probably rather have been a boy. She wants to dress as a man, and also to act as a man, including her preference for female lovers. She wants to participate in sports at the men’s level. Today her behavior and preferences wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but in France in the 1920s and 30s it was illegal for a woman to dress in men’s clothing.

Lou’s tragedy is that she never seems to grasp whatever she is reaching for, whether that is success in sports, or happiness in love. She gets close, but never quite grabs the brass ring. And her lovers all turn out to be bad choices that lead her to destruction, both her own and other people’s. To the point where the conceit of this fictional biography is that Lou’s history was erased because she became a symbol of the evils of Nazi collaboration in France.

The photographic portrait for which the book is named is by the photographer Gabor Tsenyi, and its subjects are Lou and her first lover, Arletta, at their famous table at the Chameleon Club. In the photo, Tsenyi captured the end of their relationship, but also immortalized Lou dressed in a man’s tuxedo.

That photograph, along with others taken in the same period, makes Tsenyi’s career. His perspectives on Paris in the 20s and 30s, as written in letters to his parents back in Hungary, present an entirely different point of view on the scene.

As do the quasi-journalistic ramblings of his best friend, the American author Lionel Maine.

And last but not least, the perspective of Baroness Lily de Rossignol, who begins the story as Tsenyi’s patron, employs Lou in one of her several attempts at conquering the world of sport, and finally, as a member of the resistance helping to spirit people away from Lou and the Gestapo.

These differing viewpoints; the sarcastic writer, the artistic photographer, the socialite afraid of boredom and the sportswoman seduced by speed, the wrong women and Hitler, weave a tapestry of light, music and the beauty of Paris.

But is any of it what they really remember?

Escape Rating A-: Lovers at the Chameleon Club is a story that starts out slowly, but spins faster and faster as it races towards its conclusion. As each person adds their perspective, the portrait becomes deeper and richer; the more characters in the stew, the more of Paris is revealed.

Lou is not a likable character, it’s not just that nothing goes right for her, but that she seems to make the worst choices for reasons that are not clear. But even as she falls, and keeps falling, fascinating things happen around her and/or because of her. Her life is a train wreck, and once you’ve noticed, you can’t look away.

The Baroness is not likable either, but where Lou would be unhappy that she wasn’t liked, the Baroness thought much too much of herself to care what other people thought, as long as they danced to her tune.

The most sympathetic character in the story is Gabor Tsenyi. His is the eye that sees the beauty of Paris, and captures it with his lens. Because his part of the story is revealed through his heartfelt letters to his parents, we view events as they are happening, or in their immediate aftermath. While he admits to exaggerating, he isn’t trying to rewrite history to whitewash his past, because it doesn’t need whitewashing.

In the end, I found myself doing a wikipedia search for Lou Villars. Although Lovers at the Chameleon Club is fiction, and I knew it was fiction, it felt like a real history.

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.
***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.