Natasha Lester writes romance the way it should be written – fierce and passionate with strong men and, most importantly, strong and independent women.
Her third historical fiction novel, The Paris Seamstress, is the story of Estella Bisette – forced to flee France in 1940 with little more than her sewing machine and a dream of creating couture in New York – and Fabienne Bisette, Estella’s granddaughter who, in 2015, uncovers secrets about her grandmother’s past while curating a museum exhibition of her now-famous grandmother’s fashion designs.
While I felt the central theme was definitely the mystery of Estelle’s lineage, the storyline contains plenty of romance – though of a refreshingly modern kind. Estella’s beau, even in the 1940s, understands that without her work she is not herself. Her work is part of what makes Estella the woman he falls in love with:
He stood in the doorway for a moment, seeing her in a different light, in her element, working with her friends and he suddenly understood that she needed them, needed her designs, as much as she needed him; that without her work she wasn’t Estella.
There are, however, plenty of nods to traditional romance novel conventions. The men, for example, are still extravagantly handsome, accomplished and wealthy.
Parisian women and political hats
Throughout the war scenes and the love scenes, The Paris Seamstress never lets you forget you’re reading a book about fashion. Even the romance scenes are imbued with fabric references:
And the simple act of the back of his hand touching hers felt as sensual as silk on skin.
I loved the references to political resistance in the form of fashion trends. Clothes are not just there to cover skin or help a woman attract a man. They are political – Parisian women wore decorated hats as a rebellion against the poverty inflicted by German troops against the French who refused to collaborate. The woman wore threadbare dresses on their starving bodies, but they wore hats that were the height of fashion.
Smashed glass ceilings; soft, cosy landings
In 2018 we’re still fighting for widespread acceptance of workplace flexibility to allow parents (not just mothers) to work while caring for children. Back in the 1940s, even working after marriage was unthinkable for a woman. Estella, on the other hand, has been raised by a fiercely independent single, working mother. She barely conceals her irritation at being patronised by Janie’s beau and his friends:
No, Estella wanted to interject, our lives were so dull before you came along. We couldn’t order our own champagne or work out for ourselves if we were cold or make a decision about the lobster without first checking with you.
And yet, for all the breaking of social conventions, this is a satisfying novel to lose yourself in. You know your emotions will ultimately be quite safe – bad people are bad; good people are good.
And if good people do bad things it’s because they were wronged in the past and are damaged now and can’t quite help it.
In this way it’s a wonderful sort of moral escapism from the confusing times we find ourselves in, where even some charity workers exploit the very women they’re supposed to be helping.
French pastries and other exquisite armchair travel
If, like me, you love reading novels set abroad partly for the armchair travel element, The Paris Seamstress will certainly satisfy your itchy feet. Natasha Lester went to Paris to research the book, so you can be sure of some wonderful descriptions.
Fabienne heads out to lunch at the Marché des Enfants Rouges – a real place and Paris’s oldest covered market – ‘with its delicious food and handful of rickety tables near the old Carreau du Temple.’ From there she meanders through the Village Saint-Paul ‘home to an eclectic assortment of antique shops, galleries, cafés, vintage treasures and beautiful objects…’
The only problem is the descriptions are so vivid you’re likely to develop a craving for coffee and French pastries:
She made a cup of coffee. Then she waited, standing silent and still in the kitchen for half an hour until the caffeine hit her veins and her breath evened out.
Oh, and if you’ve read Natasha Lester’s 2017 book, Her Mother’s Secret, you’ll be thrilled to know that Leo Richier, cosmetics tycoon, makes a few cameos and helps Estella on her way.