Thursday, September 08, 2016
Letters from Paris by Juliet Blackwell
Claire Broussard has felt lost her whole life, as if she was left behind, with no place she felt comfortable. So, when her grandmother, Mammaw, in Louisiana, was dying, she quits her job in Chicago and goes home to the woman who raised her. There she is once again an outsider in the family, the one who went to college, escaped, but still sent money to tend to family needs. Even now, as an adult, she escapes to the attic where she can hide from demanding relatives. It's there that the young Claire found a mask in a trunk, the mask of L'Inconnue de la Seine, The Unknown Woman of the Seine, who was said to have drowned in 1898. Something in that mask still calls to Claire. And, her dying Mammaw insists Claire should go to Paris, looking for the secrets that mask will reveal.
Even Paris has no appeal to Claire. "Paris felt cold and impersonal, overrun by tourists - of which she was one, of course - and even the most famous sights left her...unsatisfied." Claire fears she's the problem, until she finds the artist's shop still owned by the family that originally made the mold of L'Inconnue. There, under the eyes of a grumpy sculptor and his charming cousin, Claire finally feels as if she might find answers to her search. What was the story behind the anonymous drowned woman, and why does Claire feel so drawn to her?
Blackwell introduces the reader to Claire, and to the story of an artist's model, a woman whose story has eerie parallels to Claire's own life. Two lost women, "country mice", searching for life in Paris. It's a story of complex, haunted characters, trying to deal with pain and grief.
Can Blackwell's grief-stricken broken characters heal? Letters from Paris is about people finding the strength to move through the pain, to break free of the past. Claire recognizes a common trait shared by Paris and her Louisiana home. "Mostly it was an attitude, a slightly grumpy embrace of the day, fatalistic, irritated, but determined to enjoy things to the fullest. As though the knowledge that the world was out to get you - that bad things would happen - made a person stop and enjoy the simple things, like family and food and wine."
Juliet Blackwell brings Paris to life through the eyes of injured characters who still recognize beauty in life, in art, "the simple things, like family and food and wine." It's a sad story, with glimpses of romances, and, eventually hope. In the course of the book, the author uses a Welsh term, "hiraeth", defining it as a yearning for a place that no longer exists or that never existed. Wikipedia says there's no direct translation to the English saying, "It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness." It's Claire's feeling of loss. And, in some ways, it's the feeling the reader is left with after finishing Letters from Paris.
Juliet Blackwell's website is www.julietblackwell.net
Letters from Paris by Juliet Blackwell. Berkley Books. 2016. ISBN 9780451473707 (paperback), 384p.
FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.