Reviewed by Clare Brook
When thinking of occupied France during the Second World War, one does not usually associate the brutality of the Gestapo and their ever-present Swastika Flags flapping in the Parisian breeze, with the elegant swish of Christian Dior’s haute couture, but Christine Wells has brought both together in her novel Sisters of the Resistance.
Wells was inspired to write this novel on reading about Catherine Dior’s involvement in the Franco-Polish resistance network. Catherine was close to her brother, the famous Christian Dior, but rather than taking it easy, she got busy with dangerous resistance work. Wells wrote this novel hoping Catherine would now receive due recognition for her bravery.
The story takes place in two time frames, 1944 and 1947, via two perspectives, Yvette’s and Gabby’s. Readers first meet Yvette; it is 1947 when she arrives in Paris from New York where she escaped to safety putting Catherine Dior’s resistance work in jeopardy. Yvette is returning to give evidence in a court case to speak for a famous film star who is accused of war crimes. Almost immediately, she miraculously manages to get a job as a mannequin working for Christian Dior; this provides interesting fashion facts to the mix. Yvette is estranged from Gabby, her older sister, feeling guilty about things she did and did not do; consequently, she has not opened any of Gabby’s letters. Therefore is unaware of vital information that would have saved her much angst. I have to say I found this literary ploy a little hard to accept. Curiosity alone surely would drive her to opening the letters. This fear of letter opening happens again much later in the novel, when Gabby actually burns some mail, preferring to stay ignorant than hear bad news. That aside, we learn that Gabby lives with their mother working as a concierge of number ten rue Royale, a group of apartments where Catherine Dior lived. Gabby is no stranger to loss, the war has taken her father and her fiancé, and her sister is now absent from her life. She is clinging onto the hope that another person dear to her is still alive.
In the other timeline, 1944, Wells graphically shows readers how life was lived in Paris during the war. It was gruesome; its citizens caught between the brutality of the Nazis and the French criminal gangs, who acted as auxiliaries to the German Sicherheitsdienst. In this timeline, both Yvette and Gabby are recruited by Catherine Dior to help with the resistance, although neither know of the other’s involvement. Gabby is reluctant to help, but Yvette is reckless, desperate to make a difference. Her impulsiveness is of some concern to other members of the group, resulting in her departure from Paris. This timeline eventually links with 1947, as Wells brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion.
Wells is a master at teasing readers’ curiosity and playing out tensions, so creating a page-turner. When writing a historical novel, authors have to tread carefully between fact and fiction. Whereas this novel is supposedly about Catherine Dior, she rarely takes centre stage, but does have significant influence over fictional characters, Gabby and Yvette. Wells provides readers with a very personal experience of Paris during this time via the perspective of the two sisters. It is Gabby and Yvette who carry the action forward and it is their lives that involve readers’ concern. The novel has a satisfying denouement, while raising a question that could be the subject of a sequel.
Christine Wells began her first novel while working as a corporate lawyer and has written novels ranging from Georgian England to post World War II France.
by Christine Wells
Harper Collins Australia