Beatrice Colin, belle epoque, book review, Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel, hard-edged romance, historical fiction, literary fiction, nineteenth century, Panama Canal, Paris, Scotland, sexual propriety, Third Republic
Review: To Capture What We Cannot Keep, by Beatrice Colin
Flatiron, 2016. 289 pp. $26
Imagine meeting the love of your life on a hot-air balloon ride, and that he happens to be the chief lieutenant to Gustave Eiffel, just then (1886) about to begin construction on the tower that will become famous. This is the engaging premise to a well-plotted, hard-edged romantic novel of literary credentials that vividly delivers both the luxury and seamy side of Paris during the Belle Époque. What more could you want?
Well, a couple things, actually, but I don’t want to carp, since I thoroughly enjoyed To Capture What We Cannot Keep and suspect that you will too. Even so, let’s get one thing out of the way, the unfortunate title, which evokes All the Light We Cannot See. Authors don’t always decide their titles, and if this one sounds like pandering, Colin succeeds in at least one respect where Anthony Doerr, her presumed predecessor, failed. There’s no treacle here, nothing that even remotely resembles it. The only obvious similarity is that both books take place in France.
Caitriona Wallace (a histrionic name, I think), is a thirty-year-old Scottish widow reduced to playing chaperone for the beloved niece and nephew of a wealthy Glaswegian industrialist on their grand tour of Europe. Shortly before the trio are to leave Paris, Caitriona, known as Cait, takes that fateful balloon ride and meets–or sort of meets–Émile Noguier, an engineer whose direct appraisal seems less than wholly gentlemanly and thus very exciting.
And so things turns out, but, as in any worthwhile romance, the course of true love never does run smooth. The memory of Cait’s marriage pains her, but where most people assume that her husband’s untimely death is what troubles her, that’s not what hurts most, the details of which take a good while to emerge. More importantly, though Cait recognizes the unfairness behind the sexual double standard and dislikes corsets and bustles, she feels bound to uphold propriety, especially since her two young charges are determined to find trouble. As for Émile, he too feels pressured, with a domineering mother and a family tradition on one side, and a taste for Montmartre artists’ models on the other.
I like how Colin uses Paris, a city she understands and loves, to embody her characters’ outlook and desires:
Children threw rocks into dirty brown puddles, while girls only a few years older, with strings of imitation pearls around their necks and jewels of rain in their hair, waited in doorways for customers. It had shocked Cait at first, the poverty, the brazenness with which young women sold themselves, the casual attitude toward destitution and morality.
For Émile, building the tower, to him a work of art unlike any known before, requires a lot of ugliness before beauty can arise:
The men had quarried down through damp clay and wet sand, through mud studded with broken crockery and shards of glass, with splinters of animal bone and flakes of flint, and now the air reeked of decayed things, of sulfur and rot. Cutting across everything, however, making your eyes water and the world intermittently gray and indistinct, were clouds of woodsmoke. The fires seemed to burn day and night, purifying and polluting in equal measure.
With prose like this and a keen eye for psychological moments, Colin conveys the fullness of her protagonists’ inner lives and how convention keeps them from seeking what will make them happy. Several secondary characters also emerge in full, such as a conniving beauty of easy virtue and a gift for manipulating the naive, and Eiffel himself–narcissistic, generous, but always looking out for number one. Colin turns a few clichés inside out and keeps you guessing as to the resolution; “no; and furthermore” flourishes here.
But sometimes to resolve the obstacles she places, she leans on a minor contrivance or two of her own, most particularly the cardboard niece and nephew. Alice is a twit of great beauty but no culture or manners who seems completely obsessed with getting engaged at age nineteen. If she’s to be a twit, at least she can show some individuality about it. Ditto her brother Jamie, a spendthrift wastrel who causes a great deal of harm without even trying.
Finally, I wish Colin had fleshed out one point of history, a scandal regarding an attempt to build a canal in Panama, which ruined Ferdinand de Lesseps, entrepreneur behind the Suez Canal, and almost dragged down Eiffel too. The failure bankrupted an entire swath of French society, involved government bribery–causing no end of trouble for the still-young Third Republic–and incited a wave of anti-Semitism. I understand why Colin didn’t want to get enmeshed in the Panama affair, yet I think she might have hinted at how deeply the scandal roiled the country, beyond mere mention of lost fortunes and how Eiffel suddenly lost his social cachet.
All the same, To Capture What We Cannot Keep will satisfy legions of readers.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.