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Review: The Paris Winter, by Imogen Robertson
St. Martin’s, 2013. 360 pp. $26

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But Maud Heighton, the protagonist of this excellent thriller set in 1909, can’t help herself. She’s slowly starving in Paris, garden of earthly delights, while learning to become a painter at l’Académie Lafond. All Maud’s classmates are women, which keeps predatory bohemians out, but Lafond charges his female students double what he would if they were male–the image of respectability costs extra, you see.

Quai de Passy, Paris, during the flood of 1910 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Quai de Passy, Paris, during the flood of 1910 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Not that anyone of the male persuasion believes in that respectability; Maud’s brother, a lawyer back in England, disapproves of his sister’s choice to live in that sinful city, and many men freely offer their opinion that art is a masculine preserve. So as Maud’s meager funds drip away to finance her education, and as she covertly lunches on the tiny cakes served at class sessions, she’s terribly alone. She loves Paris, but it’s out of reach–and so is Maud, a proper Englishwoman who keeps her distance, living in her books and sketch pads.

In the full light of day Paris was chic and confident. The polished shops were filled with colour and temptation and on every corner was a scene worth painting. It was modern without being vulgar, tasteful without being rigid or dull. A parade of elegant originality. Only in this hour, just before dawn on a winter’s morning, did the city seem a little haggard, a little stale. . . . The streets were almost empty–only the occasional man, purple in the face and stale with smoke and drink, hailing a cab in the Place Pigalle, or the old women washing out the gutters with stiff-brushed brooms.

But Maud can’t remain impervious and aloof forever. Tanya Koltsova, a wealthy Russian classmate from Lafond’s, befriends her, determined to show her a good time and feed her enough to restore color to her cheeks. Naturally, Maud’s too proud to accept charity, but through Tanya, she learns of a situation as a lady’s companion. Sylvie Morel, a pale, blonde beauty with a sensual face who could have stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting by Edward Burne-Jones, is very sickly, and her older brother wants someone to coax her into the world and help her gain her strength. How perfect for Maud; it’s precisely what she needs for herself. In return for her room, board, and a princely wage, all she need do is entice Sylvie away from her sickbed, teaching her English and giving her drawing lessons.

There are complications, however. As Morel confides, Sylvie is addicted to opium, which he indulges within limits, hoping to wean her off the drug. Yet he praises Maud’s efforts to get her out and about and insists that he can see real progress.

Then a madwoman pounds on the door one day when Morel’s out–as he usually is–and forces her way into the apartment. Morel’s a thief, the woman declares, and Sylvie’s not his sister but his wife. The Morels have ruined her life, besmirched her good name. Naturally, Maud can’t believe a word and is horrified that she couldn’t ward her off; luckily, the concierge and her husband arrive in time and threw the madwoman out.

I probably don’t have to tell you that things unravel quickly from there, and that the Morels aren’t who they seem. The Paris Winter tells a gut-wrenching, dark story while exploring the theme of how money imprisons people who have too little or too much of it. I like the storytelling very much–Robertson makes skillful use of “no; and furthermore”–and most of her characters, who come from all walks of life. Tanya’s poor-little-rich-girl act wears at times, and I wish the author had given her more than a good heart, a taste for beautiful dresses, and a quest for what it means to marry for love. A worldview, maybe? But the weak link here is the Morels, who seem like sociopaths (especially Sylvie), and, as I’ve said before, I dislike thrillers or mysteries in which the villainy comes purely from psychological distortion.

Even so, I enjoyed The Paris Winter immensely.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.