In April 2014, Michelle Gable’s first published novel, A Paris Apartment, became a bestseller in the United States. By October, it was a bestseller in Italy, too, and the California-based author, mom and finance guru (with a day job in investor relations for a software company) got a nice, well-deserved two-book deal from her publisher, St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne Books. I’ll See You in Paris is the first of those two books.
Before we get to the new book, let’s back up a bit to that debut novel. If you didn’t read it but you’re a fan of women’s fiction, historical fiction and/or fiction that involves the art world, then you should put this compelling book on your to-read list.
The novel is based on a true story: When the Nazis invaded Paris at the beginning of World War II, a wealthy woman fled her apartment in the City of Light, never to return. Seventy years later, in 2010, the woman died and her apartment was finally opened, revealing a treasure trove of decorative arts pieces.
Gable fictionalized the story by creating a character named April Vogt, an American appraiser with Sotheby’s. April reads through the woman’s journals, uncovering her secrets, while she deals with her own failing marriage and a handsome, tempting French lawyer.
Gable sets her new work in the English countryside mostly but also, as the title would indicate, in Paris. And once again, the story is rooted in history, revolving around a colorful woman, Gladys Deacon, the Duchess of Marlborough.
In an author’s note at the end of I’ll See You in Paris, Gable writes that she learned about the duchess while researching portrait artist Giovanni Boldini for her first book.
Gladys was born in 1881 in Paris, the daughter of wealthy Americans from Newport. By the time she was 20, she was living alone in Paris. She was a friend of Marcel Proust, hobnobbed with prime ministers and kings, and, as Gable writes, “carried a handgun, went temporarily blind due to excessive reading, and declared herself ‘a miracle.’ ”
In Gable’s well-imagined novel, which begins in 2001 on a horse farm in Virginia, 22-year-old Annie has just gotten engaged. Her betrothed is a Marine about to leave for Afghanistan. However, Annie’s mom, Laurel, does not seem particularly pleased by the news.
Annie and Laurel are about to embark on a trip to Oxfordshire, England, where Laurel has some “family business” to take care of involving some kind of land deal. Annie thinks maybe this is the perfect time for her mom to finally tell her more about her family — and in particular who her dad was.
But Laurel isn’t ready to give up the secrets of her past. When they get to England and Laurel heads out each day on her mysterious mission, Annie passes the time by reading a book she’s found in her mother’s possessions — a biography of the Duchess of Marlborough, who just happened to live her final years in the same town that the mother and daughter are staying in.
Left to her own devices, Annie digs into the duchess’s story, learning more from Gus, an older man she meets in the local pub, who claims he once knew the biography’s author.
Gable has crafted another page-turner of a good read, filled with history, mystery and a dash of romance. The narrative toggles back and forth between a third-person account that follows Annie’s story and Gus’ tale of the duchess, which begins in 1972 when a 19-year-old American woman named Pru takes a job as a personal assistant to the “cultured older woman” in Oxfordshire.
This is the sort of fun, escapist read that is beloved by book clubs. There are characters to love, characters to hate, enticing settings and a requisite amount of plot twists.
I will say, though, that I couldn’t help but compare this book with Gable’s first novel, and this one seems, well, less polished. The narrative about Pru, for example, got a bit confusing — it is sometimes told by Gus firsthand, but is also told through interview transcripts and old recordings Annie finds in the duchess’s former home. While this gives the story some more texture and gives readers a way to “hear” the duchess in her own voice, I found the transitions a little bumpy.
I also thought that Annie’s and Pru’s characters were too similar — at times their voices seemed interchangeable. It was ambitious to take on three interesting women characters in this novel — Annie, Pru and the Duchess of Marlborough — but I think all three came out a little less richly developed than one would hope.
If you are new to Gable’s work, I’d suggest you start with A Paris Apartment. Then, if you like it as much as I did, you’ll want to read this one, too. Gable is a bright new talent in the world of women’s fiction, and I’m looking forward to seeing where she takes us on her next creative journey.
I’ll See You in Paris
- By Michelle Gable
- Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99
- Audio: Brilliance Audio, $29.99; read by veteran narrator Tanya Eby