Friday, April 22, 2016

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

"I'll See You in Paris" by Michelle Gable
First published in 2016
381 pages
My rating: 4.5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads

The Short Of It:
I loved this novel about mothers and daughters, secrets, love, and a (real-life!) wacky old duchess holed up in the English countryside. Fans of Kate Morton might enjoy this, though it's less heavy on the mystery.

The Long Of It:
Gladys Deacon, 9th Duchess of Marlborough, was one hell of a woman, brilliantly intelligent, cunning, cultured, eccentric and gorgeous. She once went temporarily blind from reading too much, she boasted that she'd slept with "11 prime ministers and most kings," she was pals with authors like Thomas Hardy and Marcel Proust, and she's the daughter of a murderer and a courtesan.

Gladys led a fascinating, maverick-style life, but in her later years she retired to a dilapidated manor in the English countryside, changed her name and surrounded herself with spaniels, living out her days shooting at intruders and spraying "fuck you" in weed killer on her lawn.

"I'll See You in Paris" weaves the very real story of the Duchess of Marlborough into a lovely dual narrative, set in both 1972 and 2001 -- or, more aptly as both our protagonists have sent a man to the fight, the Vietnam War and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Gladys Deacon painted by Giovanni Bodini.
In 2001, Annie has just seen her fiance Eric off to Afghanistan and, a recent English lit grad with no current job prospects, Annie is at loose ends. Her mom Laurel suggests Annie accompany her on a quick trip to England for business. They head to the little town of Banbury, where Annie falls prey to a delicious fate all bookworms have experienced -- she gets swept up in a book, a biography of the duchess, who supposedly lived out her days in the village under the pseudonym Mrs. Spencer. Annie befriends an older gentleman named Gus, and the two spend hours in the George & Dragon pub while Gus fills in the gaps in the biography.

Meanwhile in 1972, readers meet Pru Valentine, an American war widow so desperate for escape from her misery that she accepts a position of companion to Mrs. Spencer, a loony old British woman who lives in a hovel surrounded by a zillion spaniels. Before long, aspiring writer Win shows up (somehow avoiding getting shot, bludgeoned by a hammer or licked to death by dogs), determined to write Mrs. Spencer's biography and unmask her as the mysterious duchess. And, amid all the zany happenings at Mrs. Spencer, Win and Pru begin to form a bond.

The outcome of the colliding tales was pretty easy to surmise from the outset, but that didn't bother me. The book isn't advertised as a mystery with a big twist, and I just enjoyed being along for the ride as Pru befriends Mrs. Spencer and Win, and Annie explores Banbury and delves into the fascinating life of the duchess.

I really liked the "mixed-media" aspect to the novel. Not only was it told in two different time periods, but it was also occasionally presented in transcripts of conversations or tape recordings. I think that really served to move along the '70s half of the story. And interspersed in the later half are Annie's e-mails to her fiance Eric, aboard a ship en route to the Middle East.

Rather rare for me, I liked every single one of the characters. I admired Pru's bravery, smarts and make-the-best-of-it attitude, Win's self-deprecating humor and charm, Annie's curiosity and determination, Laurel's passionate love of her daughter and commitment to helping people, and Gus's kindness and dry wit.

I found "I'll See You in Paris" to be a thoroughly enjoyably read: likeable characters, one of my favorite settings, a intriguing plot that taught me something about a real person, and plenty of literary quotes scattered throughout.

Fair warning: the cover and title may lead readers to believe the book is set in Paris, but only a small portion of the story takes place there. It's predominately set in the village of Banbury, Oxfordshire, England. There is, however, a battered old book in the tale, just like the one on the cover.

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