This first installment of a historical fiction trilogy traces the fortunes of four close friends who meet in Paris in 1900.
In the winter of 1966, Isabelle Lavigne, a 26-year-old French reporter, arrives on Blackwater Island in Maryland. She is there to learn the truth about the mysterious drowning of her grandmother Suzanne de Lamothe in 1919. She is seeking answers from Suzanne’s best friend, American artist Jennie Latmore. For Jennie, now 82 years old, reliving the past is traumatic, and she refuses to answer Isabelle’s questions—until the young woman shows her a damning little red book and several photographs found in her mother’s trunk. Jennie relents: “To understand…You must know it all from the beginning, as I lived it and as it was told to me.” The narrative then jumps back to 1900, and an enthusiastic 16-year-old Jennie arrives in Paris to begin her tenure as assistant governess for the children of the new American ambassador to France. Her roommate in the servants’ quarters is the equally young Suzanne, a French scullery maid. Despite a confrontational start, the two become fast friends. When the ambassador holds a dinner party, Jennie and Suzanne watch from the second-floor landing, catching the eyes of two handsome, fun-loving guests, French painter Geste D’Arcourt and British sculptor Charlie Clark. Through the complicated relationships of these four protagonists—and the forces that send them, reluctantly, in different directions—Peake (Arbutus Halethorpe and the Elevator Murders, 2018, etc.) vividly brings readers back to the first few years of the 20th century. From the Bohemian Left Bank in Paris (where readers meet Matisse and Picasso) to the great expanses of the American Southwest and the horrors of the Boxer Rebellion in China, the four friends struggle against societal mores, personal frailties, violence, and tragedy. The engrossing melodrama is marred only by some editing mishaps (“It made her she had a leg up on her”). Still, four well-developed characters, numerous supporting players, and meticulous lifestyle depictions should keep readers engaged.
An intriguing, addictive peek at the early 20th century with two strong female protagonists.