At the end of December, I read and was utterly delighted by Hazel Gaynor’s The Cottingley Secret. I was so utterly charmed by the story that I immediately looked for more books by Gaynor. The Last Christmas in Paris was recommended by some book club members.
August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris. [from the book summary]
It starts off innocently enough – letters between Evie and Will or Thomas talking excitedly about the adventure and their plans for Christmas. But, as the reality of the war slowly sinks in, we start to see not only how Evie and Thomas’ relationship evolves, but also how the war begins to affect everything: their relationship, their families and friends, mental and emotional health, and England as a whole.
One of the things I liked about the book was that it gave equal weight to the relationships and to the war. Obviously, the war affects the relationships, but wars can also have huge impacts on individual people and whole societies. The authors were honest about many of the impacts – fear, courage, miscommunication, and trauma. I really appreciated this. I liked that the book wasn’t just about a romance and that there was a good balance between the relationship and all the things that could affect it.
I found this to be the case in some other unexpected favourites: Jennifer Robson’s Goodnight from London and her The Great War series, Teresa Messineo’s The Fire by Night, and Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle. Robson’s books and their honesty about war introduced me to the idea that novels with romances weren’t all sickly sweet or overly dramatic (I had a long standing hatred for romance novels or anything similar, which she proved was based on my prejudices about what I expect romance novels to be like – now I’m more open to books that focus on a romantic relationship). Messineo’s book pushed the romance to the back and was surprisingly honest about the trauma that women suffered during World War II (yes, we often forget that women served during WWII and that they were sometimes right in the thick of things, not always safely away from the action).
The Last Christmas in Paris starts full of naïveté and the main female character held that naïveté for a long time, but that’s not surprising as she was sheltered from the war to some degree. It allowed her to be jovial and even a little selfish (expecting to hear back, looking to her friends for comfort and support while they were facing war, etc.). It also allowed her to skirt around the possible romance budding between her and Thomas. It was very interesting to read her naive perspective while knowing the truth of the war.
I will say that I wasn’t a huge fan of the jumps to the future (late 1960’s, if I remember correctly). I felt that the story in the letters held its own and didn’t need the occasional distraction. Though, I know some people found that a story told in letters was odd, so they may have appreciated having the stage set by these interludes.
And, yes, I did find the rival to be ridiculous at times. The rival came off as an arrogant jerk and I kept having to remind myself that Evie would have had to seriously consider a good marriage in her time, even if it did mean marrying someone she didn’t love. That’s how things worked in those days, and I’m eternally grateful that we got out of that habit in Western society.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book and I appreciated the way it was told (in letters). I’m finding that I really enjoy Hazel Gaynor’s books and I’m looking forward to reading more. I have A Memory of Violets waiting on my unread shelf and I think I’ll try to get to it sometime soon.