14 February 2015

A book and its cover...

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is an idiomatic phrase which cautions against opinions based on outward appearances.
.The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson is a book in which the plot hinges on the judgments the characters make based on appearances. From the first page to the last, in the world of this book nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be. The book surprises and its plot twists and twists again because of expectations that the reader brings to the book.

"Maud Heighton  was always one of the first to arrive each day and set up her easel... the Englishwoman liked to sit on the far eastern side of the room. The challenge of the narrow angle... seemed to please her." from the first page of the first chapter

Despite the idiomatic injunction, my first judgment about a book is often "by its cover."
 I walked into Murder by the Book, my husband's favorite bookstore which we visit twice a month at minimum. Because David much prefers to read print and likes a real bookstore, we have a rule: If I first see a book at his bookstore, I must buy it there. Yes. Even if I really prefer reading Kindle's e Ink. Even if it is cheaper on Amazon. He loves that store and the people who work there and badly wants them to stay in business. The new arrivals table held a pricey hardback with a beautiful cover and I just had to pick it up. In a store with thousands of books, on a table with at least 25 titles, that was the one book I chose to pick up. I judged it by its cover.

Paris. Winter. A woman alone. Belle Epoch. The suggestion of canvas and paint.
I prefer London to Paris and 1890 to 1910 but I adore the Paris fashion of the Belle Epoch. Historical fiction is always promising.
The Prologue (yes, British spelling!) is an "Extract from the catalogue notes to the exhibition 'The Paris Winter: Anonymous Treasures from the de Civray Collection', Southwark Picture Gallery, London, 2010" I flip through pages and discover several more of the "Extracts..." scattered through the book. I adore art exhibits.

French Impressionism and Neo-impressionism is my favorite art genre and many of my favorite paintings are winter scenes. I spent many hours in front of Camille Pissarro's Morning Sunlight on the Snow, Eragny-sur-Epte, 1895 when it was part of the Impressionist Landscape Exhibit at MFAH.  It features a woman with her back to the viewer, tree branches, and winter light. For me the image evokes a feeling of vulnerability.
I suspect the cover of The Paris Winter had a similar emotional tug for me.

I opened the book and found the pages were a fairly heavy, textured paper. Reading this book would be a sensual pleasure.

Because I am a librarian I noted the publisher: St. Martin's Press and on the reverse title "First published in Great Britain..."
Does it sound snobbish to say that I considered that a very good thing?
I have a preference for British writers with their large vocabularies, cultural knowledge, and polished prose.  And now I "judge" the perhaps vulnerable woman on the book jacket to be an Englishwoman, alone in Paris in 1910. Promising, indeed!

"She was on the wrong side of the glass, pressed up against it, but trapped by her manners, her sober serious nature, behind this invisible divide. She spent her evenings alone in cheap lodgings reading and sketching in poor light. Her illness last winter... had swallowed francs by the fistful.... Sometimes she felt her stock of bravery had been all used up in getting here at all." page 18

The Cataloging-in-Publication Data from the Library of Congress categorizes the book as "Psychological fiction." I read the first three pages of the book and sample a page or so throughout the book. Robertson writes very well and the later pages appear to be as carefully written as the first.
Here is a link to Imogen Robertson's blog re. this book and some of its historical background:

"Maud felt the strangeness of being on the wide streets of Paris with such a fragmented view..."

"Maud wondered why it had been so important to her to stay in lodgings that could be thought respectable even when she was starving, why she paid the fees at Lafond's to paint the nude with no men in the room. She felt as if she were on a tower of Notre Dame looking down like one of the gargoyles at herself--herself as she had been, spinning in little circles in her sensible black working dress, as confined in her movements as a child's toy, when all around her, experiences and lives which she could not think of, could not admit to knowing, existed just out of sight."

I bought the book. I binge read it. It was a delightful read.

Would I have bought it or even picked it up to consider it if it bore a different cover?
At left is the book jacket design for the U.K. edition.
I'm pretty certain I would have walked right by without a second look.
Here is a link to a fun blog about book covers: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/11/20/you-can-indeed-judge-a-book-by-its-cover.html

Although the Murder-by-the-Book clerk who had read the book said not, my cursory browse caused me to think the book had a gothic tone.
Having read it I would say that it follows the story arc and hits most of the elements of a classic gothic novel. Here is a fun link shared by a friend of a facebook friend that explains the elements of a gothic novel: http://www.theguardian.com/books/interactive/2014/may/09/reading-gothic-novel-pictures
In The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson:
  1. No "murderous tyrant with scary eyes" but poverty, convention, manners are  tyrants with murderous result beginning in the first book's first sentence with Rose Champion's suicide and their threat to Maud Heighton and her friends. The Morels are indeed "murderous tyrants" and Sylvie's drug glazed eyes are scary.
  2. Maud is or seems to be "a pious, virginal orphan" and while her only fainting may be from hunger, her Russian friend and co-heroine, Tanya, does faint often.
  3.  Robertson does an excellent job of turning Paris, the City of Lights, into a setting that evokes both "a spooky castle" and "a stately home"
  4. Both the Morels are monsters. Opium is a monster. Winter and poverty are also monsters. Maud herself becomes "a ghost."
  5. Written in the 21st Century and set at the beginning of the 19th, it is set in "olden days"
  6. The setting is of course a "foreign land."
  7. The weather is always awful and gets worse until it turns Paris itself into a monster.
  8. Everyone is scary. Scary rich people. Scary poor people. Scary men who think they can force a woman into marriage.
  9. The laws of the land are "brazenly flouted" and even the moral rectitude of those who are Christian helpers of the English ladies in trouble in Paris is flouted when Charlotte helps with Maud's plan for revenge and accepts the stolen diamonds.
The book also has strongly feminist elements, a triad of woman friends, and both a conventional marriage sub-plot and (spoiler alert) an unconventional love story. This book was a sensational read and worth every penny.

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