A dilettante, scholar manqué and artifact collector who may or may not be a member of the Belgian aristocracy reinvents himself in late-19th-century New York, embarking on a career as an international tour guide with the assistance of his devoted American wife.
Arriving in New York in the 1870s, Armand de Potter is an ambitious immigrant who tries his hand at various business schemes before taking a position as a French teacher in an upstate girls school, where he impresses all with his erudition and patrician bearing. There, he meets his future wife, the genteel and competent Amy, whom he rechristens Aimée. The two found De Potter Tours, escorting wealthy American and British tourists to exotic locales, arranging all facets of the experience to minimize inconvenience for the travelers and enlightening them on the finer points of history and the former glories of fallen empires. Meanwhile, Armand seeks out looted antiquities and struggles to be recognized as a scholar and important collector by the academic establishment. His yearning for the approval and respect of high society, and his great fear of being exposed as an intellectual fraud, or worse, have tragic consequences. The story opens with a mention of Armand’s disappearance at sea in 1905, and the rest of the book sets about constructing the intriguing back story and sad aftermath of this calamitous event. Scott (Follow Me, 2009, etc.) builds the tale in layers, providing the perspectives of both the self-mythologizing Armand, who sees no escape from impending financial ruin and ignominy, and the perplexed Aimée as she attempts to come to terms with the sudden loss of her husband and solve the mystery of his disappearance. Though his motives are carefully laid out, Armand remains somewhat unknowable, perhaps by design; Aimée, with nothing to hide, is a more developed and fully realized character.
Scott has crafted an understated, atmospheric historical novel as well as an artful mystery set in an era of steamer ships and steam trains, when tourism was new and world travel was a glamorous and sometimes-perilous adventure.