An Irish-American from Chicago, fleeing an abusive relationship, moves to Paris on the eve of World War I.
This sequel to Kelly’s Galway Bay (2009) is exhaustively researched, but much of that research is shoehorned onto the page; too often, otherwise-engaging characters become docents spouting informational tracts about all things Irish. In 1903, after battling her way from the switchboard to a career as a fashion designer for Montgomery Ward, narrator Nora Kelly (based on the author’s great-aunt) falls prey to the blandishments of Tim McShane, a charismatic gambler years her senior who initiates her sexually and relegates her to the role of occasional mistress while he squires vaudeville star Dolly McKee publicly. Eight years later, Nora, weary of the arrangement, tries to get free. But McShane, an affable but harmless blowhard in the opening chapters (how else could the independent-minded Nora have fallen for him?), appears to have undergone a not entirely convincing Jekyll and Hyde transformation: He tries to strangle Nora. Aided by Dolly, whom McShane also abuses, Nora escapes to Paris, where she earns a living copying designs for a couturier who serves the near-wealthy and leading tours of Paris for ladies who come to shop. Along the way, she encounters Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse, Helen Keller, Coco Chanel and countless other icons. She also falls in love with Peter, a shy, austere professor at the Irish college of Paris, which also is an outpost of the Irish independence movement. Although Nora demonstrates the requisite degree of pluck—at one point she launders funds for the Irish rebellion—she never seems to mature nor gain much insight into the political, amorous and cultural tumult swirling around her. Even as she witnesses the onset of the Great War, serves as a nurse and is privy to an astounding quarrel between Yeats and his muse, Maud Gonne, over his famous poem “Easter, 1916,” Nora remains a cipher.
In a novel so awed by the great and near-great, ordinary human characters are outgunned.