Reviewed by Clare Brook
If ever there was a book that was fated to be an award winning film Natasha Lester’s The Paris Seamstress is it. Set in Paris and New York it has romance, mystery and intrigue. The protagonists are struggling to claim their place in the glamorous fashion industry of the time, but secrets and heartbreak from the past are catching up.
Dual narratives carry this historical romance, the first begins in Paris, 1940, Germany is poised to invade, the second storyline is in New York, 2015. The fashion industry is the theme of the novel and is very well researched. The premise that rich powerful men can get away with heinous crimes against women and children, of either gender, is depicted via mysterious family secrets haunting the main characters. And of course, the backdrop of WWII illustrates the same premise writ large. So much is packed into 429 pages!
The novel opens with Estella Bissette working with her mother, Jeanne Bissette, in an atelier in Paris. Estella makes beautiful silk flowers. She, like her mother, is also a competent seamstress but her dream is to design her own fashion line. It is 1940 and Paris is threatened by the Nazi invasion. Estella, through no intent of her own, becomes involved in the resistance movement, and, of course, this involves meeting a charming man. Jeanne, fearful of Estella being caught and tortured arranges a passage to New York. Estella is bundled onto the SS Washington with her mother’s sewing machine, a dream to become a successful designer, and the knowledge that her mother has lied to her about her mysterious American father.
The protagonist of the second narrative is Fabienne, Estella’s granddaughter. It is 2015 and she is in New York, having arrived from Australia for a showing of her grandmother’s fashion designs. Fabienne’s father has recently died, and while sorting through his papers she found his birth certificate, which raised questions about her family heritage. She needs her ailing grandmother to explain. And, of course, when she is in New York she meets a divertingly handsome man.
The lives of these two characters weave, in separate chapters, throughout the novel. Both are plagued by the same knowledge that their joint family history contains fearful secrets.
Estella’s new life is constructed by a series of convenient coincidences – she meets Sam and his welcoming parents on the boat to New York. Sam’s passion and talent is cutting cloth for high-end fashion and he is delighted to discover that Estella is a budding designer. They encourage one another to achieve their dream job. Another happenstance: when in New York Estella meets Janie, a beautiful Australian model, who agrees to model for Estella when her designs are ready. By another coincidence, she re-meets the charming man from the resistance movement in Paris at a swanky party that she attends with Sam and Janie. Janie had stolen the invitations to the party from a socialite while modeling. The author explains away these flukes of fate, as the destiny of the characters lives. It does make hard work of suspending disbelief but the mystery lurking beneath the surface urges the reader forward.
There isn’t too much more that can be said for fear of spoiling the dark mystery that preoccupies the plot. Lester does a subtle job of foreshadowing the horror yet to be revealed, so readers are prepared on some level. The malevolent high-society characters and their awful deeds did exist and Lester makes the decision not to hide them behind fictional names, so the reader is in no doubt as to the authentic roots of her narrative.
Unraveling the traumatic events of the past seems to encroach on Estella’s sense of identity, as if she were haplessly anchored to history and bound to repeat its sins. It is a struggle for her to disentangle and accept that her life, her context, has no bearing on the evil that lies in the past. Fabienne also struggles to step out from under Estella’s fame, to have confidence in her own talents as a designer. The outcome gives readers a healthy respect for the growth and resilience of the female characters.
Lester explains in ‘Author’s Note’ that she was at pains to imagine the legacy left to women if justice is not dealt to their abusers. She has cleverly woven these very real and present day issues into her historical romance, which, carried by her elegant prose style, is a most interesting novel.
Natasha Lester lives in Perth. She is the bestselling author of A Kiss from Mr. Fitzgerald and Her Mother’s Secret. Her first novel, What is Left Over, After, won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for fiction.
By Natasha Lester
Trade Paperback – 9780733640001 – $29.99
Audiobook – 9780733640056 – $34.99