|The Paris Seamstress / Natasha Lester
New York : Forever, 2018
I knew I was going to have to read this one at some point -- I couldn't ignore the title or plotline, in which a seamstress from Paris escapes to New York during WWII and starts up a fashion line. However, I am getting a little read out on the WWII stories these days and so had put this one off for a while.
But this month I finally got to it. It was a pretty good read, although the plethora of "WWII in Paris" novels do start to kind of blend together at some point. In this one there is the added intrigue of famous people who our main character slowly finds out are linked to her in inextricable ways. Lots of family secrets, dashing spies, political intrigue, romance, and of course a lot of sewing.
I liked the balance among all these elements. Estella is a young woman working in a Paris atelier when the war begins, and as things get more dangerous her mother, also a seamstress, basically sends her off to America with the sudden information that Estella had an American father. Estella heads out, still in shock from this revelation, with a suitcase and a sewing machine -- although she hustles down to the port with the sewing machine "banging against her leg" in one hand and the suitcase in the other. I wonder if the author experimented with carrying a 1940s metal machine in a clunky carrying case in one hand for any length of time, when it's described like this. And at one point Estella whips up a glamorous gold evening gown from leftover lamé, about 2 yards worth, in about 2 hours after a long day of work. A real Cinderella moment; I wish I could sew that quickly with such a little bit of fabric!
But other than those small moments that gave me pause, I found the rest of the book realistic and believable. Estella's story is dramatic, with many strong characters surrounding her - her mother, her two best friends she meets on the boat over to NY, a socialite who looks uncannily like her which leads to a friendship of sorts, and of course her dashing love interest. She also meets many real people, like Elizabeth Hawes (author of Fashion is Spinach) and other fashion leaders of the day. Plus a couple of notorious characters of NY fame; this part was leaned on extensively and I didn't find it convincing at all -- and wonder if there are any descendants of those people who might take issue with the characterizations!
But like most of these WWII novels lately, the book also has a dual timeline format. Estelle's story starts in 1940, and to me is the much stronger part of the book. We also have a 2015 timeline, in which Estelle's granddaughter Fabienne is discovering her grandmother's secrets just as Estelle's fashion house is being celebrated with an exhibition at the Met in contrast to Estelle herself, whose health is failing due to age. Fabienne thus has to manage the discovery of many secrets on the reader's behalf, including her father's birthright, and the war experiences of her grandmother. Fabienne is, of course, also developing a romance with a tall, dark, handsome, rich and tragic man, even though he's based in NY and she's currently based in Australia.
Oh, the tangled webs here! Lester is good at creating a complicated, interwoven set of relationships and plot points, which she then resolves neatly by the end. It's a little predictable and the drama is cranked up a little too closely to melodrama once or twice (at least for me). But the settings -- both Paris and lively New York (7th Ave, the Barbizon, the Met and more) are well drawn and the characters are memorable. Overall there is a lot of compelling detail in it, both generally and in more specific sewing areas. I did enjoy it, although I think I'll move on from the genre for a while now.