Nicole is at a turning point in her life. Her elderly parents are failing and she helps them out as best she can. Her married lover is proposing marriage but still seems to have no intention of actually leaving his current marriage. Nicole's best friend, with whom she had planned a trip to Paris to see the city that so captivates her, died of cancer. But she didn't die before extracting a promise from Nicole to take the much-needed trip anyway. A little distance from her life might give her some perspective on her road forward.
As Nicole wanders through Paris, learning to be a little bit spontaneous and to take a chance here or there, she makes some friends in the city. It is at the shop of one of these new acquaintances that she finds an old photograph of her father. The mystery of it and how it came to be between the pages of an old book in Paris takes over Nicole's thoughts and she embarks on a journey to discover this long buried part of her father's life knowing that she can't simply ask him, fogged in by Alzheimer's as he is.
Nicole's quest is not the only plot thread running through the novel though. Alternating from Nicole in present day Paris to Mississippi during WWII and then Paris after the war, the tale of RubyMae, a young black girl who escapes the Jim Crow South for the relative racial blindness of liberated Paris, also weaves through the narrative. These two parallel stories of women, one young and one in her fifties eventually come together but long before they do, it is clear that both tales are of women finding themselves, facing and making decisions that will forever impact their lives and who they are.
Each chapter, whether about Nicole or about RubyMae, starts with a small French lesson and some vocabulary words that foreshadow the story to come. The alternating between Nicole and RubyMae was initially confusing and felt a bit choppy but it eventually smoothed out. As can be the case, though, one story line was more interesting, more dramatic and so the reading experience was a bit lopsided. Thankfully, as the two stories started to come together, the whole strengthened but the connection was fairly predictable and the ending expected.
RubyMae started off as vibrant and passionately full of life but then the depth of feeling in her character faded unfortunately leaving her fairly flat. Nicole's character was flat for me all along. We're told her feelings and that she is driven to go to Paris, but that drive has to be taken on faith. Even her anger later in the book is described rather than expressed and while that fits in some ways with her suppressed character, it makes it hard to understand and sympathize with her. Finding the photo was a tad bit too deus ex machina for my taste but without it, there is no story.
The book does a nice job describing Paris now and then. And the portions about "black Paris," where all of the jazz musicians lived after the war, and how they lied and played was fascinating stuff. The book did a good job showing the opportunities and freedoms to be found overseas as compared to the US in the late forties and early fifties. Although simple and fairly predictable, folks interested in Paris after the war, the birth of jazz, and race relations in the Jim Crow era will probably find this a worthwhile read.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.