A French Trio: Mediterranean Summer; Eugenie; A Week in Paris

Coincidentally, three of my recent reads have been set in France, so I thought I would combine my thoughts on them into one French-themed post. It’s a good way for me to get through my review backlog too!

Mediterranean Summer by Jane MacKenzie was a nice surprise; a book I knew nothing about, by an author I’d never come across before, but one that I ended up really enjoying. It tells the story of Laure, a young art student who finds herself caught up in the excitement of the 1968 student demonstrations at her university in Paris. When the rebellion is over, with her future as an artist in doubt due to her involvement in the protests, Laure returns home for the summer to her parents’ house in the Mediterranean village of Vermeilla. Here, in the small Catalan community of her childhood, she is reacquainted with old friends as well as making new ones – and with the help of Robert, a lawyer, she begins to search for a way to rescue her career.

This is a lovely summer read; the descriptions of the fictional Vermeilla and the surrounding area are so beautiful I wished I could go and spend the rest of the summer there myself! There’s an interesting selection of characters to get to know too, mostly very likeable, but with one or two who could be considered villains. As for the historical background, I knew almost nothing about the Paris student protests in the 1960s, so I learned something new there, and I was also interested to read about the Nobel dynamite factory in Paulilles and the shocking lack of regard for the health and safety of the employees. I loved Mediterranean Summer and would be happy to try Jane MacKenzie’s previous novels.

The next book I want to talk about takes us further back in time, to the French Revolution. Published in 1917 (originally titled The Third Estate), Eugenie by Marjorie Bowen introduces us to two sisters, Eugenie and Pélagie Haultpenne. Pélagie, the eldest, is heiress to a fortune and, at the beginning of the book, is engaged to a handsome young nobleman, the Marquis de Sarcey. As soon as the Marquis sees her beautiful sister Eugenie, however, Pélagie is forgotten. Can he find a way to be with Eugenie without giving up his claim to the Haultpenne fortune?

I have read a few of Marjorie Bowen’s other historical novels and have found them to vary widely in style and quality. This is not one of the better ones, but despite the off-putting cover, it’s still an entertaining read. The historical aspect of the story is interesting; it focuses less on the Revolution itself than on the factors leading to it, such as the Estates General and the role of the Comte de Mirabeau. This is a novel that you would read more for the plot than because you wanted to learn some history, though. It reminded me slightly of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase; it’s fun, as long as you don’t mind lots of melodrama, swooning heroines and an anti-hero who is “a creature expert in every vice, used to every dishonour, useless, arrogant, a parasite on the labour of others!”

Finally, I read A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore, a dual timeline novel. One thread of the story is set in 1961 and follows music student Fay Knox who is in Paris for a week with her orchestra. Fay has grown up knowing very little about her early childhood as her mother refuses to talk about it or to tell her what happened to her father, other than that he was killed during the war. However, when memories start coming back to her, she has reason to believe that the first years of her life may have been spent in France. Over the course of her week in Paris, Fay decides to find out the truth about her past – and is shocked by what she discovers. Meanwhile, she is reacquainted with an old friend, Adam, but could he also be hiding secrets?

The other storyline is written from the perspective of Fay’s mother, Kitty, who falls in love with Gene, an American doctor, during World War II. The two end up trapped in occupied Paris – and their actions during this period will have consequences that live on into the next generation.

I found this an enjoyable novel, after a slow start, though not as good as similar books by other authors such as Lucinda Riley or Susanna Kearsley. The 1940s storyline is much more engaging than the 1960s one, not just because of the drama of the war itself, but also because the romance between Kitty and Gene is more convincing than the one between Fay and Adam (and less reliant on coincidence and chance meetings). I really cared about what happened to the wartime characters and was gripped by the details of life in a city under Nazi occupation, but I wouldn’t have minded if the framing story involving Fay had been left out altogether.

Three very different books, but I found different things to like about all of them!

Thanks to Jane MacKenzie for the copy of Mediterranean Summer; the other two were both taken from the outstanding titles on my NetGalley shelf.

A Glimpse into 1960s Paris – a guest post by Rachel Hore

It’s not often that I have the chance to introduce a guest post here at She Reads Novels, but today I’m pleased to welcome author Rachel Hore to the blog to tell us about researching 1960s Paris for her new novel A Week in Paris which has been published in the UK this week.

Rachel Hore

Rachel Hore

A GLIMPSE INTO 60s PARIS by Rachel Hore

My new novel, A Week in Paris, opens in 1961, when Fay Knox, a young English violinist, visits the city with her orchestra and learns secrets of her family’s wartime past. What was Paris like at that time and how did I go about researching it?

Reading histories of the period gave me the context. Paris, though glamorous, elegant and romantic, a cradle of new ideas in philosophy and high art, was still socially conservative, France as a whole even more so. In 1958, after a period of unstable government and succeeding crises over the war of independence in Algeria, General de Gaulle was recalled as President and a period of strong rule ensued. It wasn’t until the students’ riots and sit-ins of May 1968 that the young and dispossessed really challenged the aging, authoritarian head of government, and change was finally, if painfully slowly, set in motion.

Boutique off Rue de Rivoli

Boutique off Rue de Rivoli (2014)

In other ways, too, the liberal sixties came late to Paris. A glance at the popular music hits of 1961 reveals months of No.1s for traditional French crooners Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, with a young Johnny Hallyday making an appearance with ‘Kili Watch’ and, bizarrely for January, Richard Anthony singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Petit Bikini’. This picture had not changed much by early 1964 when the Beatles played a series of concerts at the Olympia music hall. An interviewer had to ask, ‘What is Beatlemania?’ and there were no girls screaming and fainting. Jazz is still big in this period. On her arrival in the city, Fay spots a poster about the trumpeter Miles Davis playing the Olympia.

Paris Match March 1961

Paris Match March 1961

Guidebooks for 1961 were immensely helpful for my research. The Dolphin Guide to Paris, written for American tourists, was full of black and white photographs of the period; a student jazz band jamming on the quays of the Left Bank of the Seine and haute couture models wearing the latest boxy coats – like Fay’s. My copy of Paris Match magazine featuring film-maker Jean-Luc Godard’s elegantly sexy wife Anna Karina made its way into my narrative, as did the Gateway Guide’s advice to fashion-hunters on a budget to visit Worth, Dior and Schiaparelli’s ’ cheaper ‘boutiques’ or to satisfy themselves with the big department stores, Printemps and Galeries La Fayette.

A Bout de Souffle

Poster of A Bout de Souffle

Much has been written about French film of the time. Fay’s fellow musician Sandra is excited when her French boyfriend holds out the possibility of meeting Alain Delon, the heart-breaker star of 1960’s Purple Noon. In the same year came A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) by Jean-Luc Godard, which with its bold visual style and innovative use of jump cuts was hailed as an important example of French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). Other practitioners included Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), both released in 1959. Movies, of course, can be a gift to the novelist conducting research as long as one weighs up their veracity.

A rest from sightseeing

A rest from sightseeing

Research can only take the fiction-writer so far. The trick for me was to recognize when to leave it all behind and to enter instead the world of 1961 Paris I’ve imagined – the world Fay sees and in which she lives and loves. When I could hear her voice I knew that it was time to put the books away.

Text and photos ©Rachel Hore 2014 unless stated otherwise.