Book 2 of Peake’s (Arbutus Halethorpe and the Elevator Murders, 2018, etc.) three-volume historical drama picks up the story of four friends who met in Paris in 1900, were separated by circumstance, and who now begin to reconnect in 1905.
Suzanne de Lamothe, Jennie Latmore, Geste D’Arcourt, and Charlie Clark have moved on with their lives since Book 1. Suzanne, now a prostitute of high standing working in an apartment in Paris’ Latin Quarter, has an especially important client who wants to set her up as his exclusive mistress. Charlie is in Vienna receiving treatment from Sigmund Freud for heroin addiction and a fondness for the occasional young man. He meets and falls in love with Marta Schrattenthaler, daughter of a rear admiral in the Austro-Hungarian Royal War Navy. Geste, still in love with Jennie but having been unable to find her after his return from the American Southwest, accepts commissions to paint vignettes from the French colonies. His world travels include spending many months in Saigon and traversing the Sahara. Meanwhile, Jennie has abandoned Paris for Nice, working in a hat shop and gradually gaining a substantial following as a portrait artist. It’s in Nice that Geste finally reconnects with her. Peake does his best to catch new readers up on his four protagonists, but a thorough understanding of these complex characters requires a sequential reading of the series. Comfortable prose approximating the cadence of the era re-creates the excitement of Europe in the early 20th century even as the inexorable march toward WWI hovers menacingly (and descriptively) in the background. Unfortunately, the text, as in Book 1, is littered with linguistic errors (e.g., “She easily noticed him, he bring the largest man in the room”). Ultimately, though, this is an engaging narrative about four individuals, each of whom gets a starring role in alternating chapters, navigating life’s fortunes and heartbreaking tragedies.
Despite some stumbles, interesting historical details and compelling characters create a captivating, albeit melodramatic, read.