The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
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.
Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland
This is another good choice for book discussion groups from Vreeland, author of Luncheon of the Boating Party and Clara and Mr. Tiffany. Set in Provence and Paris from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, Parisian Lisette has a rough transition to life in Provence with her husband Andre and his grandfather Pascal. Andre is a frame maker, and Lisette had hoped to work in an art gallery in Paris. Gradually, Lisette learns to appreciate the village of Roussillon and the beauty of the countryside. Elderly Pascal tells Lisette stories of the paintings he has collected and how he acquired them, and of meeting Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne. As a young man, Pascal had mined ochre used for pigments in the paintings. When the war begins, the paintings are hidden. Lisette learns to garden and milk a goat, and meets contemporary painter Marc Chagall. Visit the author’s website for gorgeous photos of Roussillon.
A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith
Cora Blake is working at the cannery in Deer Isle, Maine, when she gets an invitation to travel to France. Cora is a Gold Star Mother, having lost her son Sammy in World War I. A volunteer librarian who is raising her nieces, Cora has never stopped grieving for her son, and looks forward to the trip in 1931, with four other Gold Star Mothers, all from different backgrounds. Cora’s group gathers in New York City, and meets Lily, the nurse assigned to them, and their escort, 2nd Lt. Thomas Hammond. Immediately there’s a problem; Mrs. Selma Russell is African American and not meant to be part of their group. She is sent to a different hotel, and Mrs. Wilhelmina Russell joins the group. Once in France, they tour Paris, where Cora meets wounded journalist Reed, who wants to tell her story. It is a journey of new experiences, shared grief, and unexpected tragedy. Reed’s article also has surprising consequences for Cora. We don’t meet the ladies from any of the other groups on their ship, and at least one storyline is dropped. Cora is excellent company for the reader, but I was hoping for more depth and less drama. I think this book would be a good choice for a book discussion.
I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira
If you enjoy reading about art or Paris, this book may be appealing. To begin with, I found the title a bit misleading. The main characters are Impressionist painters Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, and I was expecting a grand romance. Degas gives Mary painting advice, and they are friends from time to time, when he isn’t being excessively critical or rude. Occasionally they are more than friends, but mostly not. The author’s focus is on painting, the artists’ community in 19th century Paris, Paris itself, and the illnesses and vision problems of the characters. Berthe Morisot and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet have a shared past, and Mary’s parents and sister Lydia, subject of many of Mary’s paintings, are the other featured characters, especially after they move from Philadelphia to live with Mary in Paris. The summary of the last forty years of Mary Cassatt’s life and work and the lives of her family and colleagues at the end was too compressed, but overall the book really kept my interest.
The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle
Sometimes I just want a light, fun book to read. That description perfectly fits Peter Mayle’s books. How about a luxurious working vacation in the south of France? American sleuth Sam Levitt and his girlfriend Elena are off to Marseille so that Sam can help wealthy Francis Reboul win a waterfront development contract. Readers of The Vintage Caper may remember that Reboul was Levitt’s quarry in a wine theft case, but he isn’t the type to hold a grudge. British rival Lord Wapping will stop at nothing to win the contest, while the other developer is Parisian, and not likely to win many votes in Marseille. Much sightseeing, fine wines, and gourmet dining are enjoyed by Sam and Elena until Lord Wapping’s thugs resort to kidnapping. This is a very breezy and relaxed caper, and enjoyable to read.
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, With Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
Elizabeth is an American journalist living in England when she meets Gwendal at a conference. His hippy parents live in Brittany, but he’s a Ph.D. student living in a tiny studio apartment in Paris. The pair fall in love, Elizabeth moves to Paris, and feels like a fish out of water. The food is delicious, but the language barrier and culture differences make for a rough and lonely transition. Elizabeth is frustrated at the red tape that makes it difficult for her to work, learns that in Paris the customer is not always right and struggles as a freelance writer, while Gwendal is completely unambitious, although he’s the one who ends up visiting Hollywood. The meeting of Elizabeth’s Jewish mother and Gwendal’s mother is a great scene, and Elizabeth describes the people, settings, and food vividly. Eventually Elizabeth realizes that she can cook and write about food and life in France as a career and finally settles in, but not without losing a new family member. Many memorable meals are described, with recipes. Visit her blog for photos and more recipes. She comments that her husband hasn’t eaten hot food in three years because she’s always taking photos before serving meals. This book was published in 2010, but I missed hearing about it then; I’m happy my sister recently suggested that I read Lunch in Paris.
The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd
When World War I breaks out, Lady Elspeth Douglas is visiting her pregnant friend Madeleine in Paris. Agreeing to stay until the baby is born, Elspeth also accepts a promise ring from Madeleine’s brother Alain. Later, trying to return to England, Elspeth helps wounded soldiers and encounters family friend Captain Peter Gilchrist. In London, Elspeth trains to be a nurse, without requesting permission from her uncle, then works with the wounded in England and France. She struggles with her feelings for Peter and Alain, and waits impatiently for news of both men. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Fiona Hardingham, and found the vivid descriptions of wartime nursing, travel, and life in London absorbing. The mystery is a minor part of the book, which is a stand-alone novella connected to Todd’s Bess Crawford series. The Walnut Tree was also interesting because of the restrictions young women faced, especially the daughter of a Scottish laird.