Juliet Blackwell’s Letters From Paris took me by surprise and warmed me to my soul with its story of two women, separated by over a 100 years, who find themselves in Paris after experiencing personal tragedy. Blackwell alternates between the narrative of Claire, a 21st century woman mourning her grandmother, and story of Sabine, a rural French girl of the late 19th century who is escaping an abusive stepfather after the deaths of her mother and brother. Both women find themselves working for a passionate, bad-tempered artist. I loved that Blackwell chose to narrate Claire’s story, but told Sabine’s, indicative of the lack of control Sabine had over her own life as a single, penniless girl of her time.
Blackwell enchanted me from the first page. Her descriptions of Paris were so relatable, especially Claire’s initial reaction to the city as a tourist and her disappointment as she found it difficult to find the Paris she had read about amidst all the tourists and tourist attractions. As this was my reaction to Paris, as well, I felt an instant connection with Claire. Despite this, the portrayal of Paris made me feel as if I were there again, from Sabine’s wonder as she enters the Louvre for the first time to the beautifully set table in the garden below the studio where the characters would meet for the daily apero.
The alternating story lines were easy to follow. Blackwell brilliantly used one to move the other forward, even throwing in a third that connected the story in a way that there were times I found myself grinning, seeing that connection and anticipating what would happen next. While it’s possible to say Claire’s integration into the lives of Armand Fontaine and his family seemed too easy, destiny would not be denied in Letters From Paris. And, even as I guessed at some of the secrets woven within the plot, I couldn’t help but smile to myself as the story unfolded. That the book contained secrets I never expected was such a joy for me!
Armand, like Sabine’s Maurice, is somewhat of an artist’s cliché, but their similarities end there. He’s not welcoming of the perky, American tourist who has somehow worked her way into his studio, but as Claire worms her way into his life, the reader can’t help but share Claire’s conclusion that he has suffered great tragedy himself. As the two grow closer, the relationship seems inevitable. I loved their quiet times, sitting in the garden, sharing meals for hours as Claire falls in love with both her employer and his city. The instruction that Armand gives to Claire on creating the death masks he sells in his shop was the icing on the cake, Blackwell easily weaving her knowledge into the narrative. When Armand’s tragic secret is revealed, its contrast with later revelations just knocks home for me what a remarkable storyteller Blackwell is.
5 stars for this wonderful book!
Letters From Paris was published in September 2016 by Berkley.
Juliet Blackwell was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, the youngest child of a jet pilot from New York and an editor from Texas. She graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies from University of California, Santa Cruz, and went on to earn Masters degrees in Anthropology and Social Work from the State University of New York, Albany. While in graduate school she published several articles based on her research with immigrant families from Mexico and Viet Nam, as well as one full-length translation: Miguel León-Portilla’s seminal work, Endangered Cultures. Juliet taught Medical Anthropology at SUNY-Albany, was producer for a BBC documentary about Vietnamese children left behind by US soldiers, and worked as an elementary school social worker in rural New York. Upon her return to California she became a professional artist and ran her own decorative painting, historical renovation, and domestic design studio for more than a decade. In addition to mainstream novels, Juliet pens the New York Times Bestselling Witchcraft Mysteries and the Haunted Home Renovation series. As Hailey Lind she wrote the Agatha-Award nominated Art Lover’s Mystery series. She is past president of Northern California Sisters in Crime and former board member of Mystery Writers of America. Juliet lives in a hundred-year-old house with extensive botanical gardens in Northern California, but spends as much time as possible in Europe and Latin America. She believes in the magic of language, travel, and cultural exchange to open hearts, minds, and souls.