Book Review: I’ll See You in Paris, by Michelle Gable

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ill_see_you_in_parisThe stories of three women are skilfully braided together in this tale of love and a family secret. We first meet Annie, a young recent graduate, newly engaged to her marine boyfriend. She is sure of her love for him but feels some reservation about their rush into marriage after only a few months. With her fiancé’s immediate deployment to war, Annie tags along with her mother Laurel to Banbury, England on a trip that leads to the unravelling of a family secret.

Laurel, a single mother and hard-working lawyer, is in England to finalise negotiations for the sale of a property she owns there. Just how she came to own it when she has no family is something of a mystery to Annie, as is the old, blue book she catches her mother clinging to on the night of their departure. A literature major, Annie is intrigued and is amazed to discover that the subject of the biography is one Duchess of Marlborough; a famous eccentric aristocrat who denied her title and grew increasingly mad, living out her days in the very village her mother’s property is in.

Over the course of a few days spent talking to a village local, Annie unwinds the behind the scenes background of the book. The more Annie talks to Gus, the more she is fascinated not only by the question of whether or not the crazed old lady Gladys Spencer was really the missing Duchess, but also the growing relationship between the writer and Gladys’s young American companion, the quiet and sweet Pru.

I’ll See You in Paris is cleverly interwoven via three perspectives, Annie’s time in Banbury talking to Gus and investigating, the events happening during the writing of the book and also through excerpts from the biography itself – set out as chapter introductions, they relate the life and personality of the Duchess herself.

Gable has written a wonderful tale and is skilled at showing us what her characters are like rather than telling us about them and this is particularly well done in the banter of the manuscript transcriptions:

“GD: I believe he passed. That’s the problem I often faced, seeing as how I was so much younger than everyone I consorted with.

WS: That’s not true. I meant the first part! Please! Calm down! No need to throw things, Mrs Spencer.”

Her characters are full and unique with personalities that fit together well and keep you entertained. Gladys/The Duchess is such a hoot, you can’t help but admire her madness and spirit. Even more so when you learn via the Author’s note that Gladys Spencer, aka the Duchess of Marlborough really existed and Gable has included many direct quotes and true stories of her famous escapades in life.

If you are looking for a whimsical read for a lazy weekend, I’ll See You in Paris is perfect. As all good chick-lit stories do, this one sees the characters change and grow as they reach their happy endings.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

I’ll See You in Paris
by Michelle Gable
Published by Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 9781250104793

Book Review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_the_anchoresImagine you are in a room, a cell really, ‘seven paces by nine’. There is a door – nailed shut. There are blocks of stone (they will become your friends). And, luckily for you, a cat, who decides to make your cell his home, too. (The cat can leave – and does – anytime he wants. You can’t – or rather, don’t want to).

These circumstances are those of seventeen-year-old Sarah in 1255; the country, England. The Anchoress tells the story of Sarah’s first few years as an anchoress, ‘a holy woman shut away in a small cell,’ who dedicates herself to God and receives, in return, the care and protection of the Church.

I felt a little nervous about this premise – just a room? Inside someone’s head in the room THE WHOLE TIME? Crikey, I thought – there had better be some flashback. It takes a writer wielding a powerful pen to write around such a limited setting. Robyn Cadwallader should be well-pleased with her debut efforts here, for the story is crafted well and does indeed shift from inside to out – I need not have feared for my claustrophobic, reader-self. And yes, there is flashback to vary the story. All jokes aside, it is a necessary variation.

There are two narrative ‘voices’ in this novel – the first is that of Sarah, told in first person past tense. The second is Father Ranaulf, a gifted scribe who starts out in his own small room, a scriptorium he dreams of growing. His story is noticeably told in third person, giving him and the narrative a distant, less-caring air. Which is fairly fitting – Ranaulf is burdened with the spiritual care of Sarah quite early in the book. He visits Sarah and the interactions are gruff and brief. He doesn’t want anything to do with the woman, really, but land will be lost if the anchoress does not have ‘adequate counsel’. I felt sorry for the man when his superior said ‘Your quill can wait, Father’, for I think Cadwallader writes the nearly-surly Ranaulf in all his complexity. All he wants to do is work with his quill and produce beautiful scrolls. Yet he is required by duty to attend to Sarah. In all truth, I wanted to let the man be, with his parchments and ink and admiration for fellow artists who work alongside him. Even if he was lucky enough to be there only because he was a man.

And what of Sarah, herself? Shut in this room, with only two maids through a wall to interact with on a daily basis? I found it hard to understand why she would choose this life, even with the necessary first person narration, and the reader’s omniscient ability to hear her thoughts. The main internal conflict for Sarah is whether she can rise to the mighty challenge of being an anchoress – the anchoress immediately before her couldn’t bear it, and the one before that is buried beneath Sarah’s feet – yes, in the cell. A lot of reading time was spent with my feminist self quietly chanting ‘just get out, just get out …’. A virtual impossibility in the 13th Century, of course.

However, even as I struggled with the decisions Sarah made, I also felt transported by Cadwallader to a completely different time and place; a time of serfs and lords and theology above all else. A time of patriarchy and religion. Although there is a long way still to go in religious and gender equality, I was left feeling after reading this that perhaps we have come quite a long way. In the end, the way that Sarah compromises to resolve her inner turmoil makes for a satisfying conclusion to this story about a very repressive time in England’s history.

Review by Lara Liesbeth

The Anchoress
by Robyn Cadwallader
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9780732299217