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BOOK REVIEW: The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

| 9 August 2018 | 1 Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

Hachette Australia
March 2018
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Fiction / Modern & Contemporary Fiction

7/10

Natasha Lester’s previous two historic novels have starred strong female protagonists trailblazing away in a man’s world. The Paris Seamstress is essentially cut from the same cloth. This means that it should appeal to readers who enjoyed A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald and Her Mother’s Secret. The Paris Seamstress is ultimately an epic romantic saga and family drama that weaves together aspects of multiple generations of a family’s history with charming and complex results.

It was pointless to have the argument. Much as she wished to keep her mother safe, Estella knew that she and her mother weren’t going anywhere. They would continue to sit in the atelier and make flowers from fabric as if nothing mattered more than fashion because they had nowhere else to go. They wouldn’t be joining the refugees streaming down from the Netherlands, Belgium and the north of France to the south because they had no family in the country to whom they could run.

Estella is the novel’s titular character. She is also the daughter of a single mother who works as an atelier in Paris. The two have a close relationship and share a quiet existence toiling away in the shop. But their world is shaken with the advent and progression of World War II, as the German forces advance upon Paris. Estella’s mother, Jeanne had lead Estella to believe that her father was an absent Frenchman. But once the situation deteriorates in France, Estella learns the truth (that her father was an American) and that she has the opportunity to flee France and forge a career abroad in New York. Estella is sad about bidding her mother farewell but she’s also determined to become a designer in America and she starts this journey with a simple suitcase and some sewing equipment:

‘I’ll come with you.’
‘No. It’s better if you enjoy whatever time there is left.’
And Estella suddenly understood that all the talk about France standing strong was a fervent wish, not false belief, a wish her mother held for her daughter’s sake. And, not for the first time in her life, Estella felt an overwhelming gratitude to her mother, who’d raised Estella by herself, who’d made sure she went to school, who’d worked hard to feed and clothe and shelter her, who never complained, who had such a small life, confined to the atelier and to her daughter.

Lester’s tale centres on Estella’s life in the U.S., including her chance encounter with a MI5 agent in Manhattan and his female friend. This meeting requires readers to undertake a large suspension of disbelief at the fortuitousness of this event. Hopefully the majority of readers can get past this minor detail and be swept away in the lovely atmosphere of the rest of the story.

‘A British soldier who escaped from one of the camps wrote in his report about two fellow prisoners. One of them had been there for almost a year; he had a photo of his wife stuck to the wall above his bed. The other man arrived one night and was given the bunk below. The first thing he did, in the dark, was to stick a photo of his wife to the wall too. When they woke up in the morning, they realised that they each had the same picture. That their wives were one and the same. That she must have got tired of waiting for the first man to come home so she’d married the second. What are the chances that they would have both gone to the same camp, been allocated to the same set of bunks? Fate has the best hand in this game called life, don’t you think?’
‘That wasn’t funny,’ she insisted, shaking her head. ‘Oh God, it’s so awful it’s like the worst kind of bad joke where you keep waiting for the punchline.’ She gave a wry smile. ‘What are the chances? Maybe the same as the chance of me bumping into you and Lena in Manhattan?’

Estella eventually sets up her own ready-to-wear fashion label. This piece of fiction actually has some basis in fact because many designers would had first big breaks during this period in history. The war meant that Paris fashions were no longer available to the world – leaving local industries to develop and fill the void.

‘So that is my story. You are your own woman, Estella…Be brave. Love well and fiercely. Be the woman I always knew you would be.’

The other major thread in Lester’s story is set in 2015 and involves a long-distance relationship that develops between Estella’s granddaughter, Fabienne Bissette, and an American designer from Tiffany’s named Will Ogilvie. There are some secrets that Fabienne must learn about her family history. Once again Lester does a fabulous job of drawing the reader in and drip-feeding little things along the way before bringing it all together at the end quite well. This is no mean feat because The Paris Seamstress is by far Lester’s most complicated plot thus far, mixing real-life characters with fictional ones and at times having to negotiate a number of convoluted and dark plot points that we’d love to share here but then that would reveal some major spoilers.

Was that really love, she wondered, not for the first time? The wish only to die when the other did because living became unbearable? Her grandmother had soldiered on for seventeen years after Fabienne’s grandfather died. Did that mean she didn’t love him? Or that she’d found a way to survive without him?

By her own admission, Natasha Lester is a self-educated and self-appointed fashion historian. This is certainly apparent in the attention to detail with respect to fashion that she weaves into her text and the meticulous research that has obviously gone into crafting all of this. Her prose – even in describing something as simple as the following vintage gold dress – is quite evocative. It is moments like these that really help to create an authentic feel to the period and allow the reader to be swept up and away into this world and all of its finery.

In the same way that Sam’s mother’s dress gave her the courage to face a German U-boat with dignity, Estella’s gold silk dress had transformed her nine days earlier, making her into the kind of woman who thought beyond herself and to a greater good, the kind of woman who would go on a fool’s errand to meet a stranger at a theatre because somebody she had trusted had told her it was the right thing to do. And it had brought her some comfort earlier that evening when she’d stood on deck, thinking of her mother embracing the blouse in place of her daughter.
That a piece of clothing could do so much. That it had power beyond the fabric and the thread and the pattern.

The Paris Seamstress is another novel that shows Lester’s ability to craft multidimensional characters and complex worlds based in part from events in history. She also tells intriguing stories that rest squarely on the shoulders of some strong and hard-working female protagonists. Lester’s stories are at times like diamonds, encompassing many different facets of life, hope, love, tragedy, heartbreak, secrets, and lies. Natasha Lester’s latest novel is another rich and très chic addition to her consistently well-written and beautifully-crafted library of historical fiction.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her websites are: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com and www.myshitdate.com

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