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The Paris Winter


The Paris Winter

I am pushing the BUY button right now to get Imogen Robertson’s first historical mystery, INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS, on my Kindle. I tend to gluttonize on an author’s work when I like what I’ve just read, so you can tell that I was happy with THE PARIS WINTER, her newest fiction --- and not a thriller as such, though the story has a gothic flavor worthy of Wilkie Collins.

The scene is Paris in the winter of 1909-1910, specifically the women-only atelier of one Monsieur Lafond. The studio is a fictional clone of the Académie Julian, which was an alternative to the official French Académie des Beaux-Arts and the only school at the time to admit female students and offer them instruction on depicting the unclothed body. Shocking.

Actually, the art students are in no way disreputable. Maud Heighton, an Englishwoman of genteel birth but few resources, fears that poverty may defeat her before she is able to explore her gifts. The daughter of an abusive drunk, now dead, she is living off the insurance paid after a fire destroyed her father’s property, and it is not enough: “Paris ate money. Paint and canvas ate money. Maud’s training ate money.”

Tanya Koltsova is a wealthy and cosseted Russian woman who lives with her two aunts. She, in turn, fears that she will be married off to a useless aristocratic twat (rather than to her true love, a journalist of modest means) before she can discover if she has any talent for art or for autonomy.

"The unlikely threesome of Maud, Tanya and Yvette is the motor of the book, and through it, Robertson shows the extremes of wealth and poverty in early 20th-century Paris, as well as the misogyny these women are up against."

Their frequent model at Lafond’s, Yvette (if she has a surname, it isn’t mentioned), is a woman from Paris’s mean streets with a big heart and a brain to match. She fears nothing. Although at first she thinks Maud and Tanya see her simply as “more meat to be put up on the dais and stared at,” in the course of the novel these three learn to transcend their differences in background and to love and depend on one another. More and more they become equals.

With Yvette and Tanya’s help, Maud finds employment as live-in companion to a young Frenchwoman, Sylvie Morel, who lives with her brother, Christian (his name proves to be ironic). Insulated by good food, good pay, a warm room, and a feeling of being needed, Maud fails to notice the signs that all is not as it should be in this household. Her safe berth turns life-threatening, and in order to survive, she needs to find something steely within herself. Tanya’s loyalty and wealth, and Yvette’s loyalty and street smarts, prove indispensable as Maud pursues justice --- and, perhaps, revenge. In the end, all three women and their adversaries are swept up --- literally --- in the great flood of that year.

I haven’t gone into detail about what happens because the wheels of the plot take some surprising turns, and I don’t want to commit spoilers. I will say, however, that Robertson seems to care about story as much as setting. Too often, historical novels plod, encumbered by research. THE PARIS WINTER races.

Perhaps the plot verges on melodrama at times, but for me that was balanced by the author’s attention to her characters, in particular her female characters. Although Robertson gives Tanya a romance, the book is dominated by friendship rather than sexual passion. The unlikely threesome of Maud, Tanya and Yvette is the motor of the book, and through it, Robertson shows the extremes of wealth and poverty in early 20th-century Paris, as well as the misogyny these women are up against. “Leave art and science to the men,” a writer at a fashionable New Year’s party tells Tanya. “It is our nature to innovate, to adventure into new worlds, while it is woman’s duty to support and inspire us.” (This infuriating gentleman is based on a real author whose book, THE MODERN PARISIENNE, Robertson cites in her Historical Notes at the end.)

Even among the minor characters, there are some forceful and independent “new women.” One of Tanya’s elderly aunts is surprisingly savvy about money and business; the very Christian Miss Harris and her secretary/sidekick, Charlotte, find work for indigent English and American women in Paris; brash, casual Madame de Civray, American by birth and a French countess by marriage, collects art --- including the likes of Cézanne, Utrillo and Rousseau --- and plays a key role in the plot.

One of the interesting things about the book is Maud’s evolution --- in her painting and her attitude toward art --- from conventional prettiness to work that is fresher, harsher and more rebellious. She not only explores the Countess’s avant-garde collection but goes with Tanya to the home of Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, and sees their Picassos, including a portrait of Gertrude that foreshadows Cubism. Increasingly, Maud wants to see --- and paint --- the world as it feels to her, neither idealized nor unrecognizably abstract.

I don’t usually like famous people as characters in novels, but except for a cameo by Gertrude Stein, Robertson confines herself to one: the painter Suzanne Valadon (Utrillo’s mother, and friend and muse to Toulouse Lautrec and other artists), who serves as a foil for Maud and Tanya. “You’ll never be artists, either of you,” she tells them. Tanya wants “everything to be pretty” and Maud wants to please everyone, “so neither of you will ever tell any truth worth a damn.” (However, later on in the book, Valadon sees one of Maud’s pictures and says, “You’re not as shit as I thought you would be” --- high praise indeed!)

It’s worth noting that I didn’t know Valadon’s work and had to look her up: proof that more than a hundred years later, most female artists remain relatively obscure. Sad to say, things have not changed as much as we’d like since the days of THE PARIS WINTER. The brave women who defied convention in 1910 still have a lot to tell us about art and life.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on November 26, 2014

The Paris Winter
by Imogen Robertson

  • Publication Date: February 2, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 1250074444
  • ISBN-13: 9781250074447