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BOOK REVIEW: The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

Friday, May 11, 2018


 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

How much will a young Parisian seamstress sacrifice to make her mark in the male-dominated world of 1940s New York fashion? From the bestselling author of A KISS FROM MR FITZGERALD and HER MOTHER'S SECRET.

1940. Parisian seamstress Estella Bissette is forced to flee France as the Germans advance. She is bound for Manhattan with a few francs, one suitcase, her sewing machine and a dream: to have her own atelier.

2015. Australian curator Fabienne Bissette journeys to the annual Met Gala for an exhibition of her beloved grandmother's work - one of the world's leading designers of ready-to-wear. But as Fabienne learns more about her grandmother's past, she uncovers a story of tragedy, heartbreak and secrets - and the sacrifices made for love.

Crossing generations, society's boundaries and international turmoil, THE PARIS SEAMSTRESS is the beguiling, transporting story of the special relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they attempt to heal the heartache of the past.


My Thoughts:

A dual-timeline novel that moves between the 1940s and contemporary times, The Paris Seamstress is a gorgeously rich and romantic novel about young women finding their way in the world.

The story begins with Estella Bissette, a young apprentice seamstress working with her mother at a fashion designer’s atelier in Paris. Her metier is creating silk flowers, but she dreams of designing her own dresses and takes every opportunity to practise her craft. But the Nazis are closing on France, and no-one knows what the future will hold. One day Estella gets caught up in a mysterious errand that smacks of intrigue and resistance … and meets a handsome stranger. With her life in danger, she must flee France, and with her mother’s help, gets a bunk on the SS Washington - the last American ship to leave French waters – with nothing more than a suitcase and a sewing machine.

The other narrative thread concerns Estelle’s granddaughter Fabienne, who arrives in Manhattan from Sydney for a celebration of her famous ancestor’s fashion designs. Fabienne is puzzled by some mystery in her grandmother’s past which the recent death of her father has revealed to her, and wishes to question her … but Estella is elderly and frail, and talk of the past upsets her. At the gala event, Fabienne meets a handsome stranger … but her own life is full of problems and troubles, and it seems unlikely their paths will ever cross again.

From that point onwards, the two stories cross and part and cross again, full of sensual descriptions of fabulous clothes and evocative descriptions of Paris and New York, then and now. I loved the story of how determined Estella builds her career from nothing, despite obstacle after obstacle, and I empathised with sensitive Fabienne, trying to step out from her grandmother’ shadow.

Much of the pleasure of this book is the wish-fulfillment fantasy it offers many women – the chance to imagine oneself in a swishy satin gown, drinking cocktails with high society in New York, flitting off to Paris on a whim and meeting the man of your dreams, inheriting palatial residences in two of the city’s most glamorous and sophisticated cities, making a name for oneself with your talent and hard work. The secret at the heart of the novel is not one of those surprising, oh-my-god-I-never-saw-that-coming plot twists that leaves you gasping – it’s more of a device to put the two women’s journeys into motion. But both of those journeys are so beguiling, I didn’t mind that at all.

And I just loved Estella’s final words to her granddaughter:

‘Be brave. Love well and fiercely. Be the woman I always knew you would be.’

These are wise and beautiful words indeed.

I was lucky enough to interview Natasha Lester for the blog, you can read it here.

And you can read my review of her earlier work, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Natasha Lester

Friday, May 11, 2018



Today I welcome Natasha Lester, author of The Paris Seamstress, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes! I always have been. My daydreams were somewhat dramatic when I was younger, and spurred on by whatever I was reading - when reading Little Women, for instance, I daydreamed about having a sister who died; when reading What Katie Did I daydreamed about breaking my back and lying in bed for months on end. Thank goodness none of it actually happened to me, but I think my daydreaming habit is part of what made me want to be a writer – it’s the chance to, through words and stories, always be living another life besides your own as you write each book.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Another yes! My mum has kept lots of little books and stories and poems that I wrote when I was younger. I was always writing or reading and I dreamed of one day being able to do, with words, what other writers had done for me: sweep me away to another world for a few hours.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I live in Perth and was born in Perth; I’ve lived in London and Melbourne too but Perth is definitely home. I love to read - of course! - and I also love to drink tea, go to yoga, go for long walks by the water, cuddle my gorgeous children, travel and collect vintage fashion.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I had the first flash of inspiration for The Paris Seamstress when watching the documentary, Dior & I, about Raf Simons’ tenure as Creative Director of the House of Dior. While watching the movie, I had a vision of a mother and daughter working together in a Parisian atelier and, while it took me months to work out who they were and what their stories might be, the seed for The Paris Seamstress was sown in that movie theatre.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I don’t! I write a synopsis for my publisher and then I throw that away and start writing. I have tried to plan but it just doesn’t work for me; I can’t see the story in advance of writing it. I have to feel my way into it by getting the characters onto the page, by getting to know them, by letting them show me what the story actually is.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

Rarely, but I had a very vivid dream that prompted the contemporary storyline in The Paris Seamstress. Up until that point, the book had been just a historical novel but I dreamed one night about a new character, the main character Estella’s granddaughter in fact, and it was so vivid and so compelling I had to get up at four in the morning and write it all down. It was the most productive sleepless night I’ve ever had!

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Yes! When I began writing The Paris Seamstress, Estella, the main character, was going to be a traditional seamstress. But I went to Paris to research the book and a tour guide took me to an atelier where they practice the traditional métier of artificial flower making.

If you’ve ever seen a picture in a magazine of a Christian Dior or a Chanel gown in particular, you’ll notice that they’re often decorated with flowers. Haute couture has eight traditional métiers and flower making is one of them and the process was so fascinating that, as I sat in the atelier watching the women work, I knew Estella would have to do that same thing in my book. I went to New York after Paris and visited The Met, which always has a fabulous costume exhibition. Their exhibition that year was on the traditional haute couture métiers and featured an extensive collections of dresses featuring flower-work. The universe was definitely telling me it had to be Estella’s job!

What is your favourite part of writing?
Rewriting. I do love the flow of the first draft once I get to about 50,000 words. But because I am an inveterate pantser, I find first drafts quite scary as I never know if the story will work out. With redrafting, I have the story there and all I need to do is make it into the best possible version, which is a process I much prefer.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Because I only write in school hours (I have three young kids), I never have enough time to write so I never get blocked. If I’m facing a tough scene and I don’t know how to write it, I’ll go for a walk or go to yoga. Quiet thinking time, while doing something meditative like walking or swimming or yoga or even washing the dishes, is the best way to solve story problems.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, AS Byatt, Dorothy Dunnett, Kate Atkinson, Joan Didion, Hilary Mantel, Paula McLain, Shirley Hazzard

What do you consider to be good writing?
When you forget you’re reading a book and feel as if you’re actually living in the world of the story.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Don’t give up! Dani Shapiro calls this, more elegantly, endurability. It means that you have to write for the love of writing itself, not for anything else. That love will sustain you through all the highs and lows and thorough the long years it takes to both write a book and have it published. If you give up, you just never know what might be around the corner, and you should never give up on something you love.

What are you working on now?
A book called The French Photographer, which is inspired by Lee Miller, a Vogue model turned photojournalist in WWII. She was an incredible woman and while my book isn’t strictly based on all the events of her life, my main character is heavily influenced by Lee’s work.


You can read my review of The Paris Seamstress here.

BOOK REVIEW: A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester

Friday, August 18, 2017



The Blurb (from Goodreads):

It’s 1922 in the Manhattan of gin, jazz and prosperity. Women wear makeup and hitched hemlines – and enjoy a new freedom to vote and work. Not so Evelyn Lockhart, forbidden from pursuing her passion: to become one of the first female doctors.

Chasing her dream will mean turning her back on the only life she knows: her competitive sister, Viola; her conservative parents; and the childhood best friend she is expected to marry, Charlie.

And if Evie does fight Columbia University’s medical school for acceptance, how will she support herself? So when there’s a casting call for the infamous late-night Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, will Evie find the nerve to audition? And if she does, what will it mean for her fledgling relationship with Upper East Side banker Thomas Whitman, a man Evie thinks she could fall in love with, if only she lived a life less scandalous?

My Thoughts:

Natasha Lester is an Australian writer based in Perth, and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald is her first foray into historical fiction, after two contemporary tales published by Fremantle Press.

I was irresistibly drawn to her book by its gorgeous cover and the promise of its title, A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald. I love books set in the 1920s, which was such a heady period of glamour and new freedoms. And I was intrigued by the premise: the heroine, Evelyn, is determined to become an obstetrician, at a time when women were rarely permitted to study medicine. To support herself, Evelyn becomes a dancer for the Ziegfield Follies.

The book didn’t let me down. Evelyn’s story is full of drama, heartbreak and determination, and the setting of Manhattan in the early ‘20s is brought to glorious vivid life. I particularly loved the scenes when Evelyn was fighting to be allowed to study medicine – they rang really true for me. I’m keen now to read Natasha Lester’s new book, Her Mother’s Secret.

If you love historical fiction you might also like to read my review of one of my all-time favourite books, Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters.

Please leave a comment - I love to hear your thoughts!

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