The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason

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Many people recommended this 2018 novel to me, and it is indeed precisely the sort of novel I enjoy. In truth, I like different kinds of novels depending on my mood and what else is going on in my life, but often what I lean toward is a serious, accomplished novel without a lot of look-at-me meta-tricks, one that uses a small frame to explore big ideas.

Lucius is a 22-year-old medical student in Vienna in 1914. The only child of a wealthy family, he is a disappointment to the parents who want to see him become a famous diplomat or war hero. Yet his passion is for medicine, so much so that he has no time for anything else, his only friend a fellow student. The war promises to release him from the, to him, useless lectures at his school and enable him to treat actual patients. Also, like so many others at the time, he has a romaticised vision of war.

Instead of a bustling hospital where he can get clinical training, Lucius is posted to a remote field hospital in the Carpathian Mountains. where he is the only doctor. The commandeered church is freezing; supplies and equipment are minimal, and there’s an outbreak of typhus among the patients. He has a few untrained helpers and one nursing sister, who quickly notices Lucius’s lack of practical knowlege and unobtrusively teaches him.

Among his patients are several with “nervous shock” including the silent Horvath, whom they call the winter soldier. Lucius begins to suspect that this newly defined ailment goes beyond the physical illnesses of his training, that they are at least partially psychological. His sympathy for his patients is sorely tried by the primitive treatments he has to offer and by the army’s demand that he patch them up enough to send them back into combat.

Despite the support of the level-headed sister, Lucius’s missteps, the hardships he has to endure, and the cruelties he witnesses lead to his own PTSD. Some of the scenes are grisly and devastating to read, but there are also scenes of grace and beauty. Balancing the two is perhaps Mason’s most impressive achievement.

Also impressive is his ability to bring these different mileaus to life, the gilded mansions of Vienna where we start, the terrible winter journey to his first posting, the war-ravaged village on the eastern front. While this is a story about WWI, it is not about trenches and battles. It is a small, human story powered by big ideas, not just the romance/reality of war itself and the emergence of what we now call PTSD as a recognised illness, but also the unlikely connections that save us, the small mistakes that have large consequences, hubris, guilt, atonement. It is a brilliant evocation of this moment when everything about the world changed.

Have you read a WWI novel not only captured your attention but also gave you new insight?

Paris, by Edward Rutherfurd

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In my virtual travels this winter I’ve most recently been in Venice; before that I was in Paris for several weeks. Rutherfurd’s book had been on my shelf for a long time, so that was a great opportunity to read it.

Like his other books that I’ve enjoyed, London and Sarum, this big book follows a handful of families from the earliest days of the city (here 1261) to the modern day (1968). The families vary: thieves, nobles, merchants, craftsmen. As they act and interact, we get to know the history of Paris itself, highlighting important events but more importantly taking us into their daily lives. We walk the streets with them, navigate the surge of Protestantism, mount the barricades, help build the Eiffel tower, hide a downed RAF pilot.

There’s a Jewish family that includes a physician, an antique dealer and an art dealer, through whose eyes we see the shifting political and social winds that dictate their lives, seeing the effects on individuals as tolerance veers into pogroms.

There are Brits and Canadians, tying France to the Western world and introducing the effects of immigration. There are country houses and political refuges that bring in regions outside the city.

I loved getting to know the city, relying heavily on the maps in the front of the book (as well as the family trees). Never having been there, I was always a little unclear about the geography, but now I have a good sense of it. It was also fascinating to see how the character of individual neighborhoods changed over the centuries. The Marais, for example, housed the Templars starting in 1240 which led to many churches also being built there. Royal palaces and aristocratic mansions proliferated. After the French Revolution, though, with the nobility gone, the mansions deteriorated and the area became home to Jewish and working class families. The Marais began to be rehabilitated in the 1960s and now hosts numerous art galleries.

In Rutherfurd’s novel, each of these transformations is tied to individuals and families. We escape in the middle of the night with Jacob and his family and later sell our paintings with Marc Blanchard. One of the most fascinating parts for me was Thomas Gascon’s work building the Eiffel Tower where I for the first time grasped what an engineering marvel it was, the vision of its architect Gustave Eiffel, and the courage of the men who built it.

You may start this book as I did intending to learn about the history and geography of this remarkable city. But I defy you to resist getting swept up in the stories of these individuals, their dreams and passions, their choices and chances. If stories really are the way we best remember things, as current research tells us, then what better way to learn about Paris than through these stories?

What book about or set in Paris have you read?

Waiting for Time, by Bernice Morgan

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This novel set mostly in Newfoundland seemed appropriate blizzard reading. It’s a sequel to Random Passage, which I haven’t read, continuing the saga of several families on a remote cape on the Atlantic shore. We learn enough about the characters that not having read the earlier book wasn’t a problem.

Lav Andrews, a civil servant in Ottawa, anchors the frame story. She’s sent to St. John’s to oversee a report on the viability of the Atlantic fishery and discovers a journal kept by her several-generations-back Aunt Lavinia. The main story is about the life of that aunt’s best friend, Mary Bundle, whose marginalia in the journal intrigue Lav.

Life on the cape is hard. There’s never enough to eat and no industry beyond fishing and salting cod to be sold in St. John’s. Mary is different from the others. Of course, she’s known poverty and starvation her whole life, as a child in rural England and as a servant in St. John’s. Where she’s different is that she’s always looking two steps ahead: not just at the next task to be done, but how to do things better so there will be a bit more food in years to come.

While the others aren’t thrilled with her nagging, they do go along with most of her ideas. She speaks her mind and is famous for her rages, a powerful character. Shaped by hardship, she couldn’t care less what others think of her and doesn’t hide her opinion of them: that they are like sheep. Now 97 and nearing death, she is dictating to her great-granddaughter Rachel what to write in the margins of Lavinia’s journal, determined to correct what she believes are inaccuracies in her friend’s account.

Mary made me think of my mother, who became increasingly outspoken as she aged. I tried for years to get her to write a memoir but it took her brother writing one to finally get her going. Like Mary, she needed to correct his “mistakes”.

Morgan captures the details of life at the end of the 19th century in a tiny isolated fishing community. It is a hard life, for sure, but Mary’s invincible spirit and strong voice make for fascinating reading. She has a lot to say about the couple of dozen inhabitants of the cape, their squabbles and celebrations. And there is always the sea, relentlessly eating away at the land, and always winter just around the corner.

In the end we come back to Lav, setting off for the Cape to meet Rachel, now nearly 100 years old. It’s a challenge to fit so many lifetimes into one not particularly long novel. One of the ways Morgan handles it is to keep the number of named characters small and giving them distinct characters and voices, so that it isn’t hard to keep track of them. Both Lav’s and Mary’s stories are organised chronologically, which makes them easier to follow. Morgan dips in and out of their lives with scenes illuminating her major storylines.

As with other books about the first Canadian settlers, such as Charlotte Gray’s Sisters in the Wilderness : The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, I am shocked that people could survive such conditions. It makes our current pandemic lockdown that has spawned so many complaints seem like a picnic, and the blizzard outside something minor indeed.

What do you like to read when the weather outside is frightful?

Daughter of the Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird

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What an absorbing read! Bird takes the bare bones of a forgotten slave, Cathy Williams, who posed as a man to join Sheridan’s army near the end of the U.S. Civil War and was the only woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers. Then she fleshes those bones out in this captivating novel and clothes them, not just with uniforms but with fully imagined bindings.

When Sheridan on his quest to starve out the Confederate army raids the already-depleted Missouri tobacco farm, he finds little left to take: a scrawny chicken, some sweet potatoes, and a slave to help his cook. He thinks the slave he’s confiscated is a boy because of his britches, and Cathy quickly discovers that she needs to keep up the disguise if she’s to survive. Glad to be free of her cruel mistress but miserable at being torn from her mother and little sister, she calls herself William Cathay.

As a writer, I was intrigued by the choices the author had to make. What kind of woman could not only survive, but become an integral part of an army of men? Bird’s answer: a woman whose mother never let her child forget that she was the daughter of the daughter of an African queen, a mighty warrior who may have been captured and sold into slavery but never lost her pride and spirit.

How would the author handle the bathroom issues, often ignored in historical fiction, but so important here to Cathy’s disguise? Bird comes up with creative, believable solutions, not just for bathing and peeing, but also for Cathy’s “monthlies”.

How much historical context of the Civil War and the Buffalo Soldiers campaign against the Indians would she include? Bird makes the smart choice to tell the story as a memoir, in Cathy’s distinctive and engaging voice. In keeping with that choice, she concentrates on the vivid details of daily life—the size of cooking pots, tea with blackstrap molasses and condensed milk, training new recruits with hay and straw, the things that Cathy would have noticed—and leaves out the big events that Cathy wouldn’t have been aware of.

What about real historical figures? Too little is known about the real Cathy to guide how she is portrayed. I’m no expert on Sheridan and Custer, the only other real figures besides a glimpse of Lee at Appomattox, but the way they are shown here is consistent with their actions.

If I have one quibble with this novel, it is in the characterization. Cathy herself is brilliantly brought to life, and two other characters, Sheridan and the cook Solomon, are complicated men who evolve during the story. However, the other significant characters are either all good or all bad. The remaining black soldiers have no moral sense beyond immediate gratification and are easily led. The Indians, whom the Buffalo Soldiers are sent to quell, are an undifferentiated vicious and terrifying horde, though to be fair that is probably all Private Cathay would have known of them.

Of course there is a love story—it’s rare for female characters to be allowed any other plot—but luckily it is but one strand in the many stories of friendship and courage and leadership.

If you’re looking for a tale of a strong woman succeeding against terrible odds, if you want to be immersed in a time other than our own suddenly grim one, check out this novel.

What issues have you encountered with historical novels? What historical novels have you enjoyed?

Jordan County, by Shelby Foote

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It was the author’s name that caught my eye. Shelby Foote is of course the author of The Civil War. I didn’t know he wrote fiction, but this is only one of several novels. Well, it is subtitled A Novel. In reality, it is that always fascinating hybrid: a novel in stories.

Here it is in a novella and six other stories, all set in the fictional town of Bristol in Jordan County, Mississippi. They are the opposite of a traditional historical narrative because they start in 1950 and go backwards in time to 1797, lending a curious perspective, an unfolding of causes, each absorbed in its present moment, but leading up to the time when Foote was writing.

The first story is begins with Pauly arriving in Bristol on the train. A 25-year-old veteran, presumably of the Korean War, he walks through the town, perplexed by the new names on stores, the traffic lights, the new parking meters. A distracted man approaches.

“They changed it,” he said to the man. “They changed it on me while my back was turned.”

“How’s that?” The worried look did not leave the man’s face.

“The town. They changed it. It’s all new.”

These are stories about change, adjusting to it, creating it, fighting it. Some characters are caught in the shredded remnants of the past while others launch themselves into the future, all while we move through the Jazz Age, across the turn of the century, into Reconstruction, the war itself, the beginnings of the town, all the way to the clearing of the Choctaws.

Almost nowhere is more haunted by dreams of the past than Mississippi, home of William Faulkner who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In giving the life of Hector Sturgis, the novella tells of several generations of the Wingate-Sturgis family, centered in the mansion built by his grand-grandfather in 1835. On the first page we’re told that the mansion has been torn down after the death of Hector’s mother, as specified by her will, and turned into a public park.

Introduced almost as an omen of what is to come, the county is in the grip of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic when Hector is born. The description is eerily familiar: railroads and steamboats shut down, people confined to their homes.

Growing up, Hector inhabits a liminal space. Dressed by his doting mother as Little Lord Fauntleroy, he has no friends. The boys in town are briefly in awe of him but quickly turn to jeering at him. His domineering grandmother wins the power struggle over him leaving his mother seething with resentment. Spoiled, untrained in any practical skill, he is poorly equipped to take his place as a man. Yet he does have one remarkable skill.

As the story weaves and turns it began to remind me of Faulkner’s Wild Palms, that fever dream of the South, of unexpected love, of omens and tragedy and hauntings. Still, just as in the larger novel, we can see the unspooling of whims, decisions, and actions whose long tentacles entangle Hector and his family and threaten to drown them.

There’s brilliant choreography, within each story and in the novel as a whole. Foote releases information, ties things together with the most gossamer allusion, gives us the taste and feel of life in the past. These days I’m a vessel brimming with sadness for our world; Foote helps me see how we got here.

Have you read a novel in stories? How did the form work for you?

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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This first novel from Coates, known for his nonfiction such as Between the World and Me, is the story of Hiram Walker, a young slave in Virginia whose been assigned to be the personal servant for his half-brother: the white, legitimate son of the plantation owner. Hiram’s mother was sold when he was nine, and curiously he has no memory of her. This is odd because otherwise he has perfect recall, a photographic memory.

Then one day when he is driving his feckless half-brother home, he has a vision of his mother dancing on the bridge they are approaching, and something extraordinary happens. He finds he has another, unsuspected power, one which he hopes to use to escape to the north.

Among the many wonderful layers in this story is Hiram’s ambivalent feelings towards his father. As a child he looked up to him as to a powerful god, but as he grows and begins to see the truth about the man’s failings, Hiram’s feelings become more complicated. He can’t completely lose that earlier desire to win his father’s approval. The portrait of the owner is equally nuanced, as he vacillates between treating Hiram as a son and as property. Because it’s so unusual an approach and overlaid with cultural roles, this is a great way to explore father-son relationships.

Another layer is Hiram’s new, magical power, which is called conduction. This becomes more important as the story goes on and he learns how to better use it. Supernatural powers and happenings were a significant part of slave culture, so its inclusion in this slave narrative makes sense. However, for me, this magical realism aspect dissipates some of the outrage at the mental and physical suffering of the enslaved people. Also, it seems to function as a deus ex machina in resolving problems.

To his credit, Coates does not make it easy for Hiram. For Hiram, using his powers is not like waving a magic wand, but instead is an exhausting and painful experience. It reminded me of my recurrent flying dreams as a child which were not lovely floating rides, but entailed my having to labor at a difficult breast stroke if I was to get to the person in need, a strenuous effort that always left me drained in the morning.

The writing, as you would expect from Coates, is gorgeous. His scenes draw me in, full of sensory details and poetic images that make places and stories come alive. I did not get a very deep sense of the characters, but this makes sense since we are seeing them through Hiram’s eyes. He is too young and inexperienced to be deeply perceptive about people—in fact his misunderstandings drive some of the plot. Also, this reflects the reality of slave life: People are constantly being torn away from you, sold south, or lost, so it’s better not to get too attached.

I loved the first part of the book, where even the narrative portions fascinated me, and Coates’s use of unusual terminology—the Tasked instead of slaves, the Low instead of poor whites, etc.—was delightful. However, after that, the story seemed to bog down, and I had to force myself to keep reading.

I thought about this problem for a long time, and I think it comes down to this: Once Hiram achieves his initial goal, the new goal motivating him is not strong enough to drive the story. The stakes do not seem high enough and not personal enough to make that goal matter. It is a worthy goal and certainly should matter a lot, but somehow it just isn’t convincing, at least for this reader.

Still, this coming-of-age story of a man’s journey to freedom is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I loved the unusual and nuanced way the story embodies the themes of family and memory. One of the episodes that most stands out to me is the brief story of a former slave Hiram meets who is trying to rescue the remainder of his family. Finally, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this novel vividly demonstrates the curious self-blindness, the dissociation that slave owners and supporters of slavery inculcated in themselves.

Have you ever shied away from a novel because it seemed as though its subject matter would be difficult or distressing? Did you ever, as I did with this book, go on to read it and be glad you did?

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

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Reading again this powerful book, I was deeply moved. It opens with Sethe and her 18-year-old daughter Denver in a house haunted by a spiteful spirit. After sexual assault and a brutal beating that left her back hideously scarred, a pregnant Sethe had escaped from slavery, making her way to Ohio outside Cincinnati where her mother-in-law lived. Denver was born just before Sethe arrived at Baby Suggs’s home, where she’d previously sent her other three children, two boys and a barely crawling girl.

It is that girl, Beloved, who haunts the house, shaking furniture from the walls, overturning the jam cupboard, hurting the dog. Only 21 days after Sethe arrived, the slave catcher showed up with her master and the sheriff. Rather than let them be taken into slavery, Sethe decides to kill her children and herself, but only succeeds in killing Beloved before she is stopped. A young mother myself when I first read the book, I was baffled by this beginning, but grew to understand it better as I read on.

Then Paul D., another slave from Sweet Home, shows up at Sethe’s house and drives out the ghost, only to—apparently—have it return in a different form.

I often forget aspects of books I’ve read (which comes in handy when I’m rereading mysteries), but not with this one. Although it had been quite a few years, having read it before left me free to notice and appreciate other aspects of the book.

For one thing, the way Morrison releases information is a master class in itself. In some instances, information only comes out later because the character doesn’t remember it or has worked hard to suppress it. Memory is a prominent theme in the book, its influence and—even when stifled—its inexorable return. In other places, information is hidden because the characters don’t know it yet or is mentioned but we don’t understand its meaning until later.

I was also interested in how the author handles the flow of time, having just read the fluid narrative of Celestial Bodies. Time here too is fungible, with the past intruding on the present, and not just in carefully transitioned flashbacks, but rather with the immediacy of thought., flitting through layers of memory. Unlike Alharthi’s novel, though, it does not flash forward into the future; that remains as mysterious as it is for all of us.

The first time I read Beloved I was too shocked at the vivid depiction of conditions under slavery and its legacy to pay much attention to much else. Not that I was naive about what humans were capable of. I’d followed the Eichmann trial, although I was barely into double digits then, and around the same time stumbled into a book called 100 Years of Lynchings that consisted of reprints of contemporaneous newspaper accounts—a chilling introduction to the horrors of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era that followed.

But what struck me this time was the lasting effects of slavery, both physical and emotional, the way it shaped African Americans, slaves and free, even their children. The way it shaped white people too. I thought a lot about what that kind of dissociation—the lies you have to tell yourself to be able to own slaves—does to the psyche, how you must have to shut down part of yourself, do away with emotional granularity, and lock yourself in a childishly simple world. I thought about people today who seem like hypocrites to me and wondered if they too live in that simple world and don’t even recognise their hypocrisy.

I thought too, as I often have recently, about the wealth of white people, accrued from the stolen labor of blacks, Mexicans and Chinese workers. And I thought about children being taken away from their families at the border and locked in cages and how that’s even worse than taking them away and selling them to another slave owner because then at least you have the hope however faint of possibly seeing them again.

We are all haunted by the past. Not just our own, but also that of our parents and grandparents. And not just by what really happened, but also by the illusions peddled by profiteers and our own rose-colored recollections.

Have you read this extraordinary book? What impressed you most about it?

The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

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Kadish’s fourth novel is a stunning story that braids the tale of a modern-day historian with that of a seventeenth-century woman who was brought to London by a rabbi when her parents died in Amsterdam after fleeing the Inquisition in Spain. It’s a brilliant fusion of genres: historical fiction, women’s fiction, thriller, mystery and romance.

Helen, a specialist in Hebrew history on the verge of mandatory retirement and in poor health, is contacted by a former student about a cache of documents found in the London house he and his wife are renovating. She enlists the aid of Aaron, a brash American graduate student who’s hit a roadblock with his PhD thesis.

This unlikely duo are startled to find that the books and papers do indeed date from the 1650s and 1660s, the library and letters of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. But it is the identity of his scribe, signed merely as “Aleph” that captivates them. Helen finds evidence that Aleph may be a woman and the literary hunt is on as, vexed by conservators and rival historians, not to mention their own thorny relationship, the two try to learn more about Aleph.

These chapters are interspersed with the story of Ester Velasquez as she discovers the terrible beauty of learning. When the blind rabbi asks her to read to him and write letters for him, she becomes hungry for more, reading widely in philosophy and beginning herself to write her thoughts—things that were not allowed for women at that time.

This extraordinarily well-researched book brings to life the world of London just before and during the plague years and great fire. One detail stood out for me: that several kinds of ink were used, one of which—iron gall ink—disintegrates the paper so that hundred of years later the letters show up as empty space on a page.

This image fuels the title: the weight that ink—reading and writing—places on Ester’s life, making her question her religion and the constructs of society, making her unwilling to marry since that would mean giving up the world of the mind for the daily round of chores.

It also speaks to the silence of women in that time. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her essay “Shakespeare’s Sister”, where she imagines a sister with his genius, “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”

There’s a story here for everyone. You’ve got a literary puzzle like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, a thriller as time runs out for Ester and for Helen and Aaron. There’s the social history of Jewish London at the time, fractured between upper-class Portuguese and working class Tudesco (German, meaning Ashkenazi) Jews. You’ve got insights into the different burdens placed on men and on women, both now and in the past. There’s fascinating information about conserving documents and philosophy and bountiful insight into the human heart.

For me, much as I enjoyed Ester’s chapters and the evocation of seventeenth-century London, curious as I was as to how she could possibly reconcile her warring nature with itself and society, it was Helen’s chapters that most captured my attention. We do not often enough read about a woman’s relationship with her work (or a man’s for that matter, outside of writing). Helen’s own history, her concern for not just the things but the lessons of the past, her education of this her last student: these combine to show what a woman’s life-work can be.

This is a long book, but it’s worth taking the time to sink into it. And as you get further in, you’ll find the story accelerating such that you will hardly bear to set it aside even for a moment.

Have you read a novel that effectively fuses literary genres?

Meet Me in Monaco, by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

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What a delightful summer read! Whether you’re at the beach, on a plane, or—like me—glued to a fan, weathering a heat wave in town, this Novel of Grace Kelly’s Royal Wedding, as the subtitle says, is the perfect read.

The story opens in May of 1955 as Grace Kelly arrives in Cannes for the film festival, trailed by a horde of paparazzi. Among them is James Henderson—“Jim to my friends”—an English photographer more interested in landscapes than celebrities, but needing to make a living to help support his divorced wife and beloved daughter Emily.

Despite her sunglasses and headscarf, Grace is spotted by Jim and takes refuge in a small perfume boutique. The shop and the perfumerie in Grasse where the perfumes are produced are owned by Sophie Duval. Her home in Grasse, “a stone farmhouse surrounded by sunflower and lavender fields”, is where Sophie prefers to spend her time, creating new scents and experimenting with different blends, but she needs to maintain the shop in Cannes. Luckily she has her and her father’s longterm employee Natalie to run it, but Sophie must be present during the festival.

With Sophie and Natalie’s help, Grace avoids Jim, but he’s not disappointed. He tries out his terrible French on Sophie and snaps a parting shot of her, capturing her angry response. Even in the scrum of the film festival, the two will run into each other again, as Jim struggles for the perfect photo of the film star while Sophie attends events with her wealthy fiancé Lucien.

I loved this story. (Full disclosure: I’m acquainted with one of the authors.) The time period is beautifully evoked, pulling the curtain to reveal more of the reality behind the glamour. The characters, including Grace herself, come fully alive, even minor characters like Natalie, Jim’s daughter Emily and his friend Teddy. They linger long after the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, like the ghost of a scent.

The perfume business is what most intrigued me in this novel. Sophie’s father taught her that “A parfumeur is to be a keeper of memories.” The scents she creates conjure up memories of people and places. It’s what she thinks of when she meets someone for the first time: what combination of ingredients capture this person’s essence? The descriptions of these blends are enchanting: verbena, vanilla and ginger for young women; violet, oakmoss and cinnamon for an older woman; lime and jasmine for someone who sparkles. Caught up as I was in the story, I still was happy to absorb some information about how perfumes are produced and the way the scents are layered.

It can be risky to write historical fiction set in a time that is still within living memory of many readers, disconcerting as it is to realise that what seems to vivid to some is considered history by younger generations. It can also be risky to include real people as characters. But Gaynor and Webb meet both these challenges effortlessly. Or so it seems; it is only in retrospect that I can appreciate the amount of research that must have gone into this novel and the care taken to keep it from intruding on the story.

If you’re looking for a read that will carry you off to destinations such as Provence and the French Riviera, a story that will fill your senses and your heart, you can’t go wrong with this novel.

Have you been surprised by a novel that appeared to be pure entertainment, but turned out to be something much more substantial?