What I'm Reading: The Paris Winter
Thursday, January 29, 2015
I was hoping that The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson would be the kind of rich historical novel that is right up my alley. The book tells the story of Maud Heighton, a young English woman who comes to Paris to study art at the height of the Belle Epoque. Finding herself without sufficient funds to support herself and the threat of another cold Paris winter, Maud takes a job as a companion for a young French woman, Sylvie Morel, who she soon learns is addicted to opium. Sylvie's brother Christian is not without his secrets either, and Maud quickly gets caught up in their web of deception and crime.
While the plot sounds intriguing and richly complex, I thought its execution was much less so. I think much of the book's failing lies with its characters, who I found to be underdeveloped, uninteresting, and poorly flushed out. There are a lot of characters in this book, from Maud and her close friends Tanya and Yvette, to the villainous Morels, but Robertson doesn't develop any of them very well. Even once I'd finished The Paris Winter, I didn't have a good sense of any of the characters, their back stories, or what motivated them to do what they did. We do get quite a bit of background on some of the key characters, but a lot of it doesn't really advance the story or inform our understanding of these characters.
Maud in particular felt very weak, and her shift in personality midway through the book felt unexplained. It seems like Robertson relies on the circumstances of the plot to explain why Maud changes so much, but this isn't really sufficient and doesn't tell us anything about her character. People don't usually change drastically in only a matter of days simply because of their circumstances, and I would have liked Robertson to explore Maud's shift in character in greater detail. In addition, I thought all of the storylines revolving around Tanya and her various suitors felt pretty superfluous and could have lifted right out of the novel.
Overall, I didn't think the writing was particularly strong. It felt pretty flat and disengaging to me, and there seemed an odd tension in tone. Throughout a lot of the first half of the novel, Robertson seems to be drying to capture older writing styles that better reflect turn of the century Paris. But midway through, the writing seems to become more modern, which was a bit jarring for me. Part of this can be explained away by the plot - Maud begins spending more time with "seedier" types who swear and engage in less savory activities - but still. The narrative tone feels distinctly different, and the book doesn't feel very cohesive.
I did like Robertson's inclusion of art in throughout The Paris Winter, particularly how she described different pieces that correspond to certain aspects of the story. She made these pieces sound like a real art collection, and I enjoyed her critical artistic analysis of them. I thought she tied up this aspect of the plot really well at the end; it felt like all of those descriptions came together in a very satisfying way.
Two and a half out of five stars.