|Date Published||24 October 2013|
The Paris Winter
It is 1909 and Maud Heighton has left provincial Darlington and moved to Paris in order to learn to paint at Lafond’s famous Academy. However, she finds herself short of money and almost starving and is grateful when she is given an opportunity to earn money as companion to a young, beautiful girl.
Unfortunately, Maud finds that when she has paid her tuition fees she has not enough money to live on and is slowly starving. Through the good offices of a fellow student, Tanya Koltsova, a wealthy Russian, she manages to obtain a post as a companion to the beautiful Sylvie Morel, who lives an elegant lifestyle with her brother, Christian. Before accepting the post, she is informed by Morel that his sister has an addiction to opium – something that troubles Maud not at all when she learns how much she is to be paid. Never was it more true to say that when troubles appear to be over, they are sometimes just about to begin.
The Paris Winter is set in what came to be known as the Belle Epoque, that period roughly defined by the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the beginning of World War I. Essentially it is characterised by a dissatisfaction with what had gone before, in government, art and life in general, together with an optimism in all classes of society about the future. All of this is reflected here. If art is an obsession in Paris, so is the acquisition of material things which greater wealth brings with it.
Tanya is an example of the kind of woman for whom the term financial difficulties has no meaning. Whilst she is keen on learning how to paint, she is equally keen on the lifestyle provided by the allowance she receives from her father. Even she, however, comes to realise the necessity, not to mention the desirability, of making her own decisions and has the trust in the future and the optimism generated by the Belle Epoque.
The Countess de Civray is the ultimate example of luxurious living and it is her diamond tiara, carelessly left lying about, which sets events in motion. Of course, there is the darker side of Paris, but even that is an improvement on what had gone before and there are bars and cabarets where the less fortunate can enjoy themselves. All the pomp and ceremony which had frequently dominated the past is now part of history. Similarly in art and culture there is a distinct movement away from the traditional. It is in this world, meticulously observed, that the action takes place.
But initially there is very little action. Maud comes and goes from the Lafond Academy, working diligently, but fully aware that unless she manages to obtain additional money from somewhere she will have to leave. It is not until Tanya and Yvette take a hand that she sees the possibility of completing her art education. Both Sylvie and Christian appear to be generous to a fault – certainly more generous than Maud had anticipated – but there is always a certain mysterious quality to their behaviour. The episode involving the ‘mad’ Mme Prideux is unsettling but Maud soon manages to put it from her mind. From this point on the plot advances very rapidly, but the mystery continues to exist for the reader. It is only after the entirely unexpected has happened that the motive becomes clear. Events then move forward swiftly and dramatically amid the devastation of the Paris floods.
In addition to devising a well developed, exciting and thoroughly believable plot in a convincing period setting, the author also manages to create characters – particularly Tanya and the imperturbable Yvette. Maud herself remains something of an enigma right up the very end.
This is a thoroughly absorbing, well-written book, suitable for a variety of tastes. As a crime thriller it deliberately keeps the reader guessing for long periods but the events are always entirely convincing. As a portrait of Paris in the years just before World War I it is fascinating and evocative.
Reviewed 05 April 2014 by Arnold Taylor