The Paris/Dior Secret by Natasha Lester

I hadn’t read a book by Natasha Lester before, but that mistake was rectified when I picked up The Paris Secret (also called The Dior Secret?). Now, having read her latest, I understand why people rave about her work. I also know I have more marvellous tales to lose myself in. I feel, however, I need to explain why I haven’t read her before and I think it’s to do with the covers. I’m not sure why, but to me they suggest a different content to that which lies between them. It was a content I didn’t think I’d enjoy – how wrong can you be? I LOVED this book. The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” is one I should have heeded in this instance. But of course, we do and I judged poorly.

The novel employs multiple timelines to tell the story of a group of disparate women at different stages in world history and women’s autonomy. There are the amazing women who flew planes during the war – not to fight the enemy, but to relocate them for airmen to both fly into enemy territory and deposit or pick-up resistance fighters/spies. It was incredibly dangerous and devalued work – the latter at least initially. In this part, the reader follows the lives of two sisters – Liberty and Skye – their estrangement and unconventional career paths. The men and women they encounter in their duties are brave, bold and reckless and the relationships they form are enduring and deep. Based on actual events and the history of these incredible women, I found this section riveting.

The book also explores the launch of Christian Dior’s first fashion collection post-war. Bold, stylish and extravagant, it speaks to a world hurting from war and its terrible aftermath. His sister, Catherine, was a resistance fighter who suffered when she was caught by Nazis. The gowns and the perfume he releases are a tribute to her.

Fast-forward to the present day, the third timeline and fashion conversator, Kat Jourdan discovers a wardrobe full of priceless Dior gowns in her beloved grandmother’s abandoned cottage in the UK. What is the connection between these gowns, her grandmother living in Sydney (where Kat is located), the sisters Liberty and Skye, never mind the war? What dreadful secrets have been kept and, more importantly, what’s the cost of exposing them?

This is a wonderful story, cleverly paced and plotted and filled with fascinating characters and history. I could barely put it down and read well into the wee hours in order to discover the fate of not just the sister and Kat, but the entire cast of this magnificent, emotionally rich and satisfying novel. 

Marvellous.

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Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Let me start this review by saying how much I love Liane Moriarty’s books. I have read every single one with responses ranging from incredible (Big Little Lies), to yes, I quite enjoyed that – and not in a “damning with faint praise” way, but yes, I liked it. Nine Perfect Strangers, strangely enough, hovers between these two responses with a dash of disappointment added in as well. Let me explain…

After an opening scene that sets up a back story, the action moves ten years forward as the nine strangers in the title  – though less than perfect – descend upon a Wellness retreat called Tranquilium to change their lives. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular point of view – including those of some of the staff and the rather remote, exotic and passionate owner of the retreat, a Russian expatriate who has managed to transform her own life and is committed to doing that for others.

The reader is taken on the transformative “journey” these nine people are asked to share. A journey that involves a great deal of trust on their behalf and a sacrificing of the various pleasures their real world lives afford them. Slowly – and not so slowly- we learn what has brought them to a point in their lives where they felt they need to escape and change. The revelations are heart-aching, humorous, deeply felt, clever and the characters are brought to life through their back stories, insecurities, desires and flaws. But what they find at the retreat as the ten days begin to pass is not what they expected. As more and more is asked of them they begin to wonder, is change worth it, even if it means saving a life, marriage, relationship, mental health and well-being?

The first fifty percent of this book had me hooked. I engaged with the characters, felt compassion for them, laughed and cried alongside them and was drawn into the motivations of their lives past and present. I believed in them and their reasons for taking such an extreme option. I also enjoyed the gentle cynicism around the whole notion of “wellness” retreats and the expectations/demands of staff  and how these collide with and undermine those of the clients. But, at the halfway point, the story suddenly ventures into unexpected territory when one of the central characters becomes almost a caricature replete with accent. The reader is asked, along with the nine strangers, to suspend their disbelief as the tale and the clients’ experiences, descend into what is akin to a farce. My credibility was strained and I became frustrated as I was so enjoying the ride up until this point.

Moriarty is a beautiful writer and her insights into human nature and relationships are deep and shiny. Little pearls that pop and make you sigh, cry and laugh in recognition. This is what kept me reading and saved the latter part of the book  – to a point – for me. Threaded through this were still moments of incredulity (on my part – eg. there is an extended sequence where the characters “trip” and I found it unrealistic, too convenient from a narrative perspective and such a stretch, I found it uncomfortable) which undermined a persuasive and deeply felt story of the desire to transform, the pressures to do this, and why some people both feel they have to and resist. How in contemporary times so few people are content with who and what they are. The moral core of the story is sound, but the frame becomes frail and, in my humble opinion, came close to snapping. Never mind the fact some characters remain two-dimensional – sometimes so much so, they simply walk off the page with very little explanation.

Overall, this is a quite good read that contains some fabulous characters but, at times, a thin plot. That was, for me, the disappointing part. It’s wonderful prose which contains some searing insights into human nature and relationships, all explored with a deft and kind hand. I really love Moriarty’s work and will look forward to her next book even while I feel a little ambivalent about this one.

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This book was given a huge recommendation by a friend who shares similar reading tastes but not even her high praise prepared me for the story that unfolded when I began reading The Nightingale.

24447955Set on the eve of Word War Two in rural France, Paris and other locales, this is fundamentally a tale about two sisters: the gentle, loving and loyal Vianne, who simply wants to get on with the business of living and loving her husband and daughter, and her rebellious, impulsive sister, Isabelle. Fundamentally abandoned – if not rejected – by their father after their mother died and while still young, the two sisters found different ways to ope with their grief and loss. Sadly, they’re unable to find solace in each other; Vianne is frustrated by her sister’s perceived lack of responsibility and selfishness, Isabelle by Vianne’s lack of interest in and feelings for her – it’s as if she’s been rejected by her sister as well.

But it’s also a story about war and what it does to those who are drawn into its tragedy; how it strips some of their humanity, while for others it reminds them of what’s important and why no risk is ever too great to sustain this.

When the rumours of Nazis invading become a reality and the sisters’ very different lives are overturned, Vianne is forced to billet a Nazi officer. Terrified for her daughter, wondering about her husband who has been conscripted to the front, as her beloved village is transformed almost overnight (including some of the villagers) Vianne faces terrible deprivations and loss of heart and soul as she is forced into a series of difficult and dangerous choices simply to survive.

In the meantime, a chance encounter with an earnest young man sees Isabelle risking her life in order to stand up to the Nazi injustices and the destruction these monsters leave in their wake.

What neither Vianne or Isabelle can predict, however, is just how many sacrifices they’ll be asked to make, how many losses they’ll have to endure and how much faith and courage they’ll have to find – not only in each other, but within themselves.

Moving from the late 1980s and the reminiscing of a dying old woman and back to the young woman and the war tearing the world apart, this heart-wrenching, beautiful and brave story of women and men who resist the lure of evil, who stand up for what is right is remarkable. Taking its time, the novel draws you into the lives of the sisters, their family and neighbours. With gorgeous prose, meaningful reflections and such truth in the complex familial relationships portrayed, even when what’s being revealed is painful or unflattering, you come to understand the characters and their motives. Because the novel is set against a backdrop we know so well, the reader is privy to what the characters don’t know – the heartless onslaught of Hitler, the Gestapo and Nazis, the horror of the Concentration camps, and the chaos and utter heartache that await them all. How hope is so hard to cling to, but cling they must. This knowledge creates a particular frisson as you read, making the narrative even more powerful than it already is.

Hauntingly tragic yet also so very beautiful, this is a story that lingered in my heart and mind for days afterwards. A simply wonderful book that I cannot recommend highly enough whether you’re a lover of history, fine fiction, a tremendous tale or whether you long to hear the voices of those so often rendered silent.

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