Letters from Paris
By Juliet Blackwell
Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Daniele
After surviving the accident that took her mother’s life, Claire Broussard worked hard to escape her small Louisiana hometown. But these days she feels something lacking. Abruptly leaving her lucrative job in Chicago, Claire returns home to care for her ailing grandmother. There, she unearths a beautiful sculpture that her great-grandfather sent home from Paris after World War II.
At her grandmother’s urging, Claire travels to Paris to track down the centuries old mask-making atelier where the sculpture, known only as “L’inconnue”—or the Unknown Woman—was created. With the help of a passionate sculptor, Claire discovers a cache of letters that offer insight into the life of the Belle Epoque woman immortalized in the work of art.
As Claire uncovers the unknown woman’s tragic fate, she begins to discover secrets—and a new love—of her own.
Letters from Paris is a lovely tale about two women in two different eras, and their quests to find love and meaning in their lives.
I really enjoyed my armchair travels to Paris through Juliet Blackwell’s writing. She has done an excellent job of bringing both the present day and late nineteenth century Parisian settings to life. As I read, I felt completely immersed in the story. Letters from Paris is at its heart a love letter to Paris and all that makes France and its people great – the climate away from the tourist attractions, the history, the more leisurely pace of life, the unbelievable food and wine, and the sense of belonging to a large extended family.
The dual narratives tell the story of Claire, who has done her best to escape her “country” roots in Louisiana yet still feels at a loss, and Sabine, who came to Paris at age eighteen with hopes of a better life as an artist’s model than her existence with her abusive step-father. I quite enjoyed the parallels of Claire and Sabine’s lives and how they intertwined to create a complete, satisfying story of strength after loss.
When Claire receives word that her grandmother is not long for this earth, she leaves her job and life in Chicago behind to tend to her Mawmaw in Louisiana during her last days. While there, Claire comes across a damaged death mask that her great-grandfather had shipped home from Paris during World War II. As a lonely child, Claire treated the work of art as a best friend and confidant, and Mawmaw encourages her to go to Paris to learn the secrets of “The Unknown Woman of the Seine”. At first, Claire is disappointed by Paris, but when she accepts an offer to work for a couple of weeks at the famed Lombardi family mold makers, where the mask was created, she soon opens her eyes to the beauty of France. Head of the studio is Armand, a brooding artist with a tragic past, just as Claire is haunted by the accident that killed her mother yet spared her. Determined to find out all she can about the mystery of the mask, the more she learns about the past the more she is able to deal with her own history. There are a couple of twists that took me by surprise, and they enriched the story.
Sabine’s chronicle, which takes place in 1897, does not receive the same amount of attention as Claire’s, and that is a bit disappointing. Her story is just, if not more, compelling than the present day. The chapters dealing with Sabine are rather short, and I found it jarring at times to be engrossed in the turn of the century only to have the chapter seemingly end too soon. However, this is a trivial quibble, and I savored each word of this novel. Sabine’s love story is fraught with emotion and peril, and I was pleasantly surprised with the resolution of her tale.
The characters are well developed and complex. They all have struggles that they must overcome, and this makes them believable and realistic. I can easily see myself encountering and befriending all of them. Paris and the French way of life are characters in their right, and I long to return to the City of Lights myself someday.
Letters from Paris just might end up on my list of favorite reads of the year. I recommend it to readers who enjoy dual narratives, a Parisian setting, and flawed, yet hopeful characters.