Jacqueline Bouvier, before she met JFK, spent her junior year of college in Paris. This well-researched biographical novel brings postwar Paris to life in rich detail. In 1949 and 1950, Paris is still very much in recovery mode. There is still some rationing, the food is not yet plentiful, and Jacqueline is often served soup by her host mother, Comtesse de Renty, along with bread and cheese. The apartment, shared with the Comtesse’s two daughters, young grandson and two other American students is also very cold, with the repairman unable to get parts for their heater.
Jacqueline’s family has connections in France, and she often spends weekends in the countryside, riding horses. Gradually, Jacqueline learns more about the sacrifices and suffering of the Parisians during the war, and has a political awakening as well. Described as intelligent, introverted, observant, and a bit naïve, she is also charming. Her first serious romance does not go smoothly, but she learns much from the relationship. Author Mah walks a fine, smooth line between biography and fiction, making this novel a sure bet for fans of historical fiction or Francophiles.
This historical novel is based on the remarkable life of Black fashion designer Ann Lowe. Fourth in a family line of dressmakers, Ann was born in Alabama in 1898. Her grandmother was born a slave. Ann was designing and making fabric flowers as a young girl, and she finished a commission to make four dresses for Alabama’s first lady at 16, after her mother died.
Married extremely young, Ann had one son. Discovered by a Tampa socialite, Ann and young Arthur lived with the family in Tampa, where she designed and made dresses for the family. At their suggestion, Ann studied at a design school in New York City, where she wasn’t allowed to sit in a classroom with the white students. Racism also hampered her ability to open a dress shop in the south near where her wealthy clients lived. Later, Ann designed dresses in New York City for the rich and famous, sometimes in her own shop and sometimes in a department store, struggling with finances, her eyesight, and especially, for recognition of her talents. Among Ann’s notable designs were the gown Olivia de Havilland wore to the Academy Awards when she won an Oscar, and Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding gown, which had to be made twice.
A compelling read, well researched, and with a good sense of time and place. A moving and thought-provoking novel about an extremely talented artist; well worth considering for book groups. Readalikes include The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester, Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson and The Gown by Jennifer Robson.
Set in 12th century France and England, this stunning, richly detailed novel was inspired by poet Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and later Queen of England. At 17, Marie is living at Eleanor’s court, but is considered unmarriageable due to her great height, lack of beauty, and uncertain parentage. She’s well educated and ran her mother’s estate for two years. Eleanor sends Marie off to England to be prioress at a rundown, impoverished abbey, with twenty nuns. After reluctantly settling in, Marie rides her warhorse to evict a family who refuse to pay rent, installing a family who can supply the abbey with much needed food. When poetry sent to Eleanor doesn’t have the desired result, Marie helps improve the abbey and its lands, with sheep, a scriptorium, and even a labyrinth. Visions of Mary often guide her to new and bigger projects. Later, as Abbess, Marie makes enemies but has plans to make her island of women safe, secure, and often pleasurable. Readers will be swept up in the tales of abbey life and the bold ideas Marie introduces. To read more about strong women in religious life in the Middle Ages, try The Joys in My Life by Alys Clare, Hild by Nicola Griffth, or the delightful Sister Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer, including The Bastard’s Tale. Two of many novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine are The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland and Captive Queen by Alison Weir.
When a young Russian musician is found dead at Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth doesn’t think the investigation by MI5 is headed in the right direction. With help from her new assistant private secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a veteran and daughter of Nigerian immigrants, the Queen secretly makes inquiries. In the spring of 2016, the Queen is soon to turn 90, and enjoys talk of horseracing, walks with her dogs, and giving well-deserved honours. The mystery is clever and intricately plotted, but I most enjoyed the characterizations of the Queen, who is depicted as shrewd, loyal, and an excellent judge of character, and of Rozie, along with the wonderfully described setting of Windsor Castle. The first book in a planned series, this compulsively readable and engaging mystery is sure to delight fans of The Crown and readers of British mysteries with amateur sleuths.
Marrying right before World War I, Agatha Miller followers her mother’s advice to put her new husband Archibald Christie first. Unfortunately, other than surfing and playing golf, nothing Agatha does seems to make Archie happy. She even puts time with her daughter Rosalind at a lower priority, and leaves her behind to travel with Archie. Finally, Agatha thinks about what makes her happy: time with her daughter, mother, and sister Madge, and writing mysteries. It’s not so enjoyable reading about Agatha and Archie’s increasingly unhappy marriage. Then Agatha suddenly vanishes in December 1926, the same day she and Archie have a loud argument during breakfast. The story really takes off here, and the disappearance is related from Archie’s point of view, as the police become suspicious of his role in her disappearance. I wanted to know more about Agatha Christie’s life after reading this novel, which is based on the real disappearance of the author. It’s been 100 years since the first Hercule Poirot mystery was published; so it’s perfect timing for a novel about the creator of Poirot and Miss Marple. This mystery will be published in late December.
The struggles and triumphs of the wife of Winston Churchill make for an interesting biographical novel, especially the second half of the book, which covers World War II. The first half of the book doesn’t flow as well, as it covers the first thirty years of Clementine and Winston’s marriage. Clementine was always interested in politics, although she didn’t always share Winston’s views. He was moody and rather bombastic, but Clementine would stand up to him, soothe and support him, and they were a good team, at least according to this very well researched novel. Clementine struggled to balance being a supportive wife with being a good mother and running a household on a modest budget during the early years of their marriage, and occasionally took a rest cure to recharge. I really liked the chapters on Clementine’s work on the home front during the war, improving air raid shelters, helping Winston with his speeches, and being recognized internationally for her work with the Red Cross. Other recent books about the Winston and his mother Jennie include Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard and That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron. Readalikes include novels by Melanie Benjamin, Paula McLain, and Nancy Horan.
Maud Gage, daughter of a suffragette, is a student at Cornell College in the 1880s when she meets Frank Baum. This is the story of their marriage, raising sons and struggling to make ends meet in South Dakota and Chicago until Frank’s storytelling makes him a success with the publication of The Wizard of Oz. The tone is bittersweet, especially the scenes with Maud’s sister and niece in drought-stricken South Dakota. Later in life, Maud visits the M-G-M studio during the filming of the Wizard of Oz and encounters young Judy Garland while trying to keep the film true to Frank’s stories. The Baum’s family life is vividly described, especially the ways Frank tried to make Christmas magical for their sons. Though I would have enjoyed more about their life after Frank started publishing the Oz books, Finding Dorothy is an absorbing, engaging biographical novel.
Jennie Jerome visits Europe with her mother and sisters in 1873 and catches the attention of Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill. She will become best known as Winston Churchill’s mother, but this book just covers her childhood and marriage to Randolph. Jennie is vividly shown here as glamorous and scandalous, but also smart, sympathetic, and complex. She can definitely keep a secret, had a fascinating childhood, and is a distant but loving mother. Jennie falls in love with a diplomat, finds that an old friend is not to be trusted, and is surprisingly loyal to Randolph in her own fashion. Colorful and sensational, this biographical novel is sure to please readers interested in the sumptuous Gilded Age.
Rich New York socialites are befriended by writer Truman Capote in the 1950s. Truman is openly gay, so their husbands don’t mind having him around on their yachts and in their villas. Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill Harriman, and Slim Keith freely confide in him; only C.Z. Guest doesn’t share her secrets. Twenty years later, Truman reveals their secrets in a fictionalized article for Esquire, with grave consequences. The author explores the lives and relationships of these glamorous women and the colorful writer, best known for his book In Cold Blood and a remarkable black and white ball. Gossipy, entertaining, yet often sad, this novel is a compelling read.
The island of St. Thomas in the 19th century makes a vivid setting for a biographical novel about Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his parents. Rachel roams around the island with Jestine, the daughter of her family’s cook, Adelle, and only reluctantly agrees to marry Isaac Petit, an older Jewish merchant with three children. She loves his children and their own, but does not love Isaac. After Isaac’s death, his nephew Frederic travels from Paris to run the family business. Rachel and Frederic fall scandalously in love. Camille is one of their children, whose fascination with color and island life distract him from his work at the family’s store. Surprisingly, Rachel coldly discourages his artistic talent, although Camille gets the encouragement he needs from Rachel’s friend Jestine. Several of the characters spend time in Paris, also colorfully drawn. A very strong sense of place, lively dialogue, complex characters, and a touch of magical realism make this book an enchanting read.