Novelist Shakespeare (In Tasmania, 2004, etc.) searches for the realities of his aunt’s life before, during and after World War II.
The first portion of the book explains Priscilla’s childhood: Her mother ran off with one of a series of lovers; her father’s lover demanded Priscilla be sent off to Paris to live with her mother in 1926; her mother abused her. It was at school in St.-Germain-en-Laye that she met promiscuous Gillian, who became her lifelong friend and confidante. After a case of venereal disease and a badly performed abortion in Paris (her mother gave her the abortionist’s name), she met and married Robert, nearly 20 years her senior. In spite of her husband’s impotence, Priscilla enjoyed the luxuries of being a vicomtesse. When Robert was taken prisoner in the German invasion, her in-laws, fearful of losing their estates, turned her out. She was interned a short time as a British national but was released when she claimed pregnancy. This is when her history gets cloudy. When Priscilla returned to England after the war, she was a healthy woman with a suitcase full of designer clothes and little evidence of the ravages of wartime Paris. Was she a collaborator? Who were her protectors? A trove of papers, letters and photographs discovered by Shakespeare after Priscilla’s death paint the portrait of a woman who lived well. In occupied Paris, ordinary women were cast into extraordinary circumstances—their main goals were to procure enough clothing and food and not get shot. Priscilla’s letters and Gillian’s notebooks finally put names to Priscilla’s important Paris wartime lovers, and the author moves back and forth in time to narrate her life.
A somewhat disjointed story that nonetheless successfully recounts how one woman dealt with her dysfunctional life.