Advanced Reader Copy received from the publisher (Atria) via NetGalley
Release Date: 17th March 2015
“Passion, for better or worse. It can keep a soul alive even if all that survives is a shimmering.”
I requested this book on NetGalley on a bit of a whim; I’d read very little about the book, but but it intrigued me. The cover is gorgeous, the title and short summary were enticing; a magical mystery set against the luscious backdrop of 1890s Le Belle Epoque Paris. I’m grateful for the review copy but – although I seem to be in the minority – this book didn’t really work for me.
Sandrine arrives in Paris one rainy night, turning up unannounced on her grandmother’s doorstep, looking for a new life and somewhere to take refuge from her cruel husband, whom she has left behind in San Francisco. She gets a surprise when she finds her grandmother is no longer residing at the grand mansion she remembers from her childhood, but instead is staying at a flat while the grand house is undergoing renovation work. But that’s just the beginning of her problems.
Sandrine’s grandmother evades questions about what is going on with the mansion, so Sandrine decides to investigate herself. Behind her grandmother’s back she meets handsome architect, Julien, who is working on the mansion, and the two embark on an affair. As Sandrine’s passion for Julien grows, she discovers a darker side to herself, gaining knowledge and skills she never knew she had, as she descends into the grips of possession by a dark, lascivious spirit.
For me, this novel kind of felt like it was trying to be too many things at once. There’s no doubt that M.J. Rose’s writing is beautiful, but the intense supernatural fantasy weaved in with mild erotica, and set against what I believe was supposed to be a realistic historical backdrop just didn’t quite gel. I’ve enjoyed historical fantasy before, but this novel felt like it was straddling between genres, unsure of its place. It required too much suspension of disbelief for me, even in the parts which weren’t rooted in fantasy. It’s kind of like the writer thought up loads of elements she thought would make a good novel – art, sex, ghosts, spells, Paris – and threw them all together in a big melting pot. The result was a story with lots of twists and turns, but it lacked a certain emotional depth and character development. I didn’t feel like I knew or understood Sandrine at all.
One character I did enjoy was Sandrine’s grandmother. A glamorous working courtesan who commands respect – Sandrine describes her saying “My grandmother inspired awe. She was like a rare jungle orchid.” Working in 1890s Paris, holding saloons in her lavish mansion and mingling with some of most revered and wealthy men of the time, I would have liked more of her story. Before all the ghost malarky came along, she really seemed to have her head screwed on, and I think I would enjoyed a novel which charted her life more than the flaky Sandrine. I know my difficulty associating with Sandrine probably has something to do with the fact that she was being taken over by someone else while I was getting to know her, but she was just so stupid and mean it made her hard to get along with and left me feeling frustrated.
Having said all this, I did enjoy some of the author’s writing. Her descriptions, while a little over elaborate at times, were evocative and captivating. I enjoyed learning about the Ecole des Beaux-Arts – one of the finest art schools in the world, according to the author’s note – and fell in love with the Librairie du Merveilleux; a luxuriously decorated, mysterious home to followers of the occult; “This was not a store, not a library; it was a cave of wonders, its secrets waiting to be explored.”. And Le Belle Epoque Paris was definitely a gorgeous setting for a novel. But, I got a little tired of the flowery language, Sandrine’s self-indulgent manner and unrealistic plot developments. I wish I’d given this one a miss – but others may enjoy it.