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.  

4 comments:

  1. I think we are bound to have completely opposing viewpoints on books. I really enjoyed this one. I loved seeing Maud's transformation, and more importantly, I really loved how Robertson did not glamorize the life of a starving artist. The Morels were odd, but I thought Maud and her friends were fun and fierce. I thought the whole thing was highly entertaining.

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    1. I love hearing different opinions! It reminds me how different our perspectives all are and to be thankful there's such a wide array of books out there. :) I agree with you that Robertson was really great in not glamorizing the life of starving artists at the turn of the century. In fact, I had no idea that female students were frequently charged so much more than males. No wonder Maud and the others had such a difficult time!

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  2. I think you have hit on one of the hardest parts of creating a good character driven novel: how to handle change. I think most people like to see a character grow and to have changed by the end of a novel (and/or series). But this leads to a problem: Main Character at time 1 (the beginning) is not equal to Main Character at time 2 (the end) [sorry, is my undergraduate philosophy degree showing?]. We want and expect this change, but the trick is filing in the middle bit so that the change, though stark when looked at with a wide lens, is less jarring in the happening. Well, this comment went on longer than I anticipated. Having not read the book, I can't weigh in on this character transformation. But I know the feeling of hitting a transformation that felt rushed and thus unearned.

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    1. Yes, I think this is where I got stuck in this one. I think with more careful development, the transformation could have been stronger and more satisfying.

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