The Paris Secret…
About the Book:
A wardrobe of Dior gowns, a secret kept for sixty-five years, and the three women bound forever by war… from the New York Times bestselling author of THE FRENCH PHOTOGRAPHER.
England, 1939: Talented pilot Skye Penrose joins the British war effort where she encounters her estranged sister, Liberty, and childhood soulmate Nicholas Crawford, now engaged to enigmatic Frenchwoman Margaux Jourdan.
Paris, 1947: Designer Christian Dior unveils his extravagant first collection to a world weary of war and grief. He names his debut fragrance, Miss Dior, in tribute to his sister, Catherine, who worked for the French Resistance.
Present day: Australian fashion conservator Kat Jourdan discovers a secret wardrobe filled with priceless Dior gowns in her grandmother’s vacant cottage. As she delves into the mystery, Kat begins to doubt everything she thought she knew about her beloved grandmother.
An unspeakable betrayal will entwine all of their fates.
THE PARIS SECRET is an unforgettable story about the lengths people go to protect one another, and a love that, despite everything, lasts a lifetime.
There is a quote in this novel that had me chuckling as soon as I read it and I want to share it up front as it really does set the stage for what I want to say about Natasha Lester after having read her latest release, The Paris Secret.
‘He took historical events people thought they knew about and retold them from the perspective of someone unexpected or overlooked.’
One of the characters in this book is an author and this is a description of his writing. But honestly, this is exactly what Natasha does! In her case, she’s been writing about WWII, and in particular with her last two novels, The French Photographer and The Paris Secret, her unexpected and overlooked perspectives are those of women and the extraordinary ways in which they contributed to the fight to save humanity. The Paris Secret takes us into the world of female pilots in England during WWII, and goodness, what a world it was. The astonishing bravery of these women, the hideous manner in which they were used and discriminated against; it truly beggars’ belief.
‘She supposed they couldn’t have known it would be the worst winter England had seen for decades. But the RAF did coordinate the ferrying movements and so could dictate what the women flew and where. And they flew those Tiger Moths right the way through the record-breaking winter to Scotland. Two thousand planes. Two thousand arctic journeys in all.’
Natasha Lester’s work has evolved into a more feminist outlook with her last two novels. Her research is deeply focused, sadly, I think it has to be in order to uncover the atrocious manner in which women were so casually treated across the board in the many and varied roles they fulfilled throughout WWII – hidden histories, so to speak, and no doubt difficult to recover facts on. Even so, there is a meticulous attention to detail that gives her work credibility. There is, quite literally, no stone left unturned. A read through the author note at the end of this novel proves the lengths of her commitment to portraying her story with accuracy. On account of the many cases of injustice and misogyny she has no doubt uncovered over the course of her research across all of her novels set within this era, Natasha’s focus seems to have narrowed, and is consequently sharpened onto portraying these injustices, minus the sugar coating. She has a distinct talent when it comes to characterisation, crafting strong women who are not brash and crass, but rather strong-willed, intelligent, fiercely brave and loyal, while still retaining their femininity. In short, she doesn’t see the need for having her women constantly swear out of context or act in distasteful ways, mimicking the violence of men and exacerbating casual sexism, as is sadly, a common trend in novels that feature ‘strong’ women, particularly in military settings. There is a grace to Natasha’s characters that instantly ignites empathy.
‘Every one of her worst experiences at the ATA scudded across her vision: the test flight she’d had to undergo to prove she could fly, despite her logbooks; the medical examiner asking her to remove her clothes; the freezing flights to Scotland in open cockpit planes; the ten circuits she’d had to do in her Halifax just because she was a woman.’
There are so many layers to this novel, the story laced as tightly as a web, spun out in the telling over three eras. Whilst most of the story unfolds during the war, there are several vignettes set just after the war and these were particularly sad, weighted with all of the horrors that had not long passed, but were not yet tempered with the passage of time. I did very much enjoy the present-day sections, both the story and the characterisation. This is a somewhat ambitious novel, huge in scope, and many layered in its story, but it works. Natasha Lester has, in my opinion, demonstrated once again, that she can not only build incredible worlds and people them with a magnificent cast, but she has the ability to execute it all with well-timed precision and historical authenticity. Throughout the entire novel, she consistently achieves the right balance of heartache and hope, whilst still retaining a real-world impression. As we approach the ending, the story takes a very grim and distressing turn, and while much is conveyed about the characters situation, it is never done in a gratuitous manner. Sensitivity to what hundreds of thousands of women went through remained paramount throughout this entire part of the story.
‘Le dernier convoi that train was later called: the last train out of Paris. It arrived at Ravensbruck concentration camp on the twenty-first of August 1944. Paris fell to the Allies just four days later.’
So, what about the fashion? Where does that fit in? The fashion angle, particularly the sixty-five gowns, offers an ode to friendship and survival. I really liked what Natasha did here, especially the symbolism of those two brilliant blue dresses, it was very moving. Kat’s career was fascinating, the science of it and the way in which history can be conveyed through the fashions of the time – and not just in terms of how people looked, but also about society and its values. I’ve always had a keen interest in this area and this novel allowed some indulgence in that without minimising the gravity of everything else that was going on.
‘The dresses in her grandmother’s mysterious cottage were not just a random selection: there was one gown for every year from 1947, when the House of Dior opened, through to the present. Sixty-five gowns in all, chosen carefully to represent the best and most timeless pieces.’
I don’t cry much over books anymore. A tear here and there maybe, sometimes a welling in my throat that forces me to hold the tears back until it passes. Honestly, when you have to wear glasses to see, crying becomes a pain. I can count on one hand the books I’ve properly cried in and still have fingers to spare. But this one, I had to stop reading because I couldn’t see for the tears and the wet glasses and I couldn’t breathe for the blocked nose. It made me ugly cry and that is a very rare thing! This book, it’s exceptional. I can’t even possibly articulate the exquisite mix of beauty and sorrow that is evident throughout. I’m not sure how Natasha Lester plans to top this one, but as always, I will be at the head of the line when the time comes to find out.
Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a review copy of The Paris Secret.
Read more about The Paris Secret over at Author Talks with Natasha Lester.
About the Author:
Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive before returning to university to study creative writing. She completed a Master of Creative Arts as well as her first novel, What Is Left Over, After, which won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for Fiction. Her second novel, If I Should Lose You, was published in 2012, followed by A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald in 2016, Her Mother’s Secret in 2017 and the Top 10 Australian and international bestsellers The Paris Seamstress in 2018 and The French Photographer in 2019. The Age described Natasha as ‘a remarkable Australian talent’ and her work has been published in numerous anthologies and journals.
In her spare time Natasha loves to teach writing, is a sought after public speaker and can often be found playing dress-ups with her three children. She lives in Perth. For all the latest news from Natasha, visit http://www.natashalester.com.au, follow her on Twitter @Natasha_Lester, or Instagram (natashalesterauthor), or join the readers who have become Natasha’s friend on Facebook.
The Paris Secret
Published by Hachette Australia
Released 31st March 2020