A young woman’s artistic aspirations play out against the backdrop of late-19th-century Paris in this novel.
A few years after her father dies, Emma Dobbins, a young woman from California, decides to travel to Paris to pursue a career as a painter. Her father, a lighthouse keeper, raised her by himself. In flashbacks, readers get glimpses of life at the lighthouse. En route to Paris, Emma gets separated from her traveling companion, and when she reaches the city by train, she knows no one and doesn’t speak French. A young woman who works at the station takes pity on her and brings her home to live with her family. Emma gets a job cleaning the bathrooms at the station, but it’s not long before she gains access to the highest artistic and social circles of Paris. She enters an art school and begins modeling for a young and wealthy painter named Frederic Bazille. She encounters such artistic luminaries as Renoir, Monet, and Degas. She gets invitations to the ballet, dinners, and various salons. At a party, Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary stage actress, asks Emma, “What would you say about taking a balloon ride with me?” These interactions often feel forced and reveal the tale’s attempts to glean legitimacy from the artistic renown of its historical characters, including Bazille. Thompson (Their Golden Dreams, 2015, etc.) relies heavily on dialogue to convey exposition and emotion, but it is plain and overly earnest. Though the novel never strays from Emma, it has almost no access to her mind. In response to the unrest in France, she says, “I am not involved in what is going on. I am not French. This is not my concern.” Emma is lovely—few characters refrain from commenting on her looks—but beyond her beauty and drive, the protagonist is rather shallow. The richest aspect of the story is its gripping historical context, as the struggle between the French army and the National Guard tears Paris apart and points to more conflict to come: The Commune revolt looms on the horizon.
An ambitious work of historical fiction hampered by uneven characterization.