It is the winter of 1909 in Paris. La Belle Epoque has filled the city’s studios, cafes and drawing rooms (not to mention its cemeteries) with painters, writers and thinkers. But while Paris during these glorious days is a cultural heaven to some, for others it is a dream that can never be realised. For these people awaits poverty, hunger and even suicide.
The Paris Winter focuses on the story of Maud, a young woman from northern England who spends what little money she has on art classes and painting materials. Feeding the body or keeping it warm is far less important than following the dream that brought her so far. But when one of her fellow painters hangs herself this triggers self-awareness in Maud as well as concern in her wealthy but orphaned Russian friend Tanya. Determined not to see her friend share this terrible fate, Tanya, aided by the artists’ model Yvette, sets out to find Maud employment that will keep her fed, warm and safe. Unfortunately, Paris is a city that shines with beauty but it is a painted veneer. Even the pavements beneath one’s feet cannot be relied upon to stay steady during this winter of 1909.
This is a novel very much in two parts. During the first, we slowly begin to know Maud and her friends as well as her struggle to keep painting in a society that prefers women to be models rather than artists. It’s a luxurious portrait of the slightly seedier aspect of La Belle Epoque Paris interspersed with glimpses of its more glittering side. As Maud travels around Paris, studying its people and buildings, it’s hard not to become caught up in this early 20th-century world. In the second half everything becomes much darker as the full extent of Paris’s underside is revealed, working its spell on Maud, transforming her, while we are swept along on a black river of drugs, crime and cruelty. It’s at this point that The Paris Winter changes pace entirely and from then on we are in a historical thriller, full of twists and surprises and almost melodramatic horror.
I actually preferred the first part. I enjoyed very much getting to know Maud, Tanya and their companions as well as the city itself. I liked the slow accumulation of details about Maud’s previous life and the way in which Yvette in particular is eased into the tale. The other characters we spot in the distance are also fascinating, with references to famous names and places, and I would have been happy to have spent the entire novel at this leisurely pace.
While I did enjoy the intricate plotting and scheming of the second part, I was less interested in its more flamboyant elements and found some of the twists rather predictable. Nevertheless, there are moments of sheer excitement here as well as deeply intriguing character development. Paris itself appears caught up in events and that enormous, powerful context is an elaborate backdrop for the more intimate aspects of the story. At times the novel does take on a dramatic air, with Paris as the stage, populated by a mix of larger than life characters (especially the villains) as well as our central heroine Maud.
The Paris Winter is most successful for its beautifully, elegantly written portrait of Paris in all its beauty and ugliness, revealing the hidden layers behind La Belle Epoque. That alone is enough to make me recommend you read it.