The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure – Pre-pub Preview, Part III

Today I’m previewing an October book for which I’m very excited for, The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure. Go on, check out the publisher’s description and tell me that you aren’t intrigued:

Like most gentiles in Nazi-occupied Paris, architect Lucien Bernard has little empathy for the Jews. So when a wealthy industrialist offers him a large sum of money to devise secret hiding places for Jews, Lucien struggles with the choice of risking his life for a cause he doesn’t really believe in. Ultimately he can’t resist the challenge and begins designing expertly concealed hiding spaces-behind a painting, within a column, or inside a drainpipe-detecting possibilities invisible to the average eye. But when one of his clever hiding spaces fails horribly and the immense suffering of Jews becomes incredibly personal, he can no longer deny reality.

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure will be released October 8. It is an October Indie Next Pick, a Library Journal starred review, and a National Reading Group Month Selection.

Barnes & Noble

I’m sharing part three of a four part excerpt. For the first two parts, visit Beth Fish Reads and Erika Robuck’s Muse. The final part will be on Linus’s Blanket tomorrow.

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure
Excerpt, Part 3 of 4

Lucien checked his watch as he opened the massive wood door of 28 rue Galilee. It gave him a great sense of satisfaction that he was one minute early for his appointment. What other man could walk all the way across town, almost get shot by a German, clean a dead man’s blood off his jacket, and make it in time? The experience reinforced his belief that one should always budget an extra fifteen minutes to get to a client appointment. His prized Cartier watch, which his parents had given him upon his graduation from college, said 2:00 p.m., which was actually the time in Germany. The Germans’ first official act had been to impose the Reich’s time zone on occupied France. It was really 1:00 p.m. French time. After two years of occupation, the forced time change still annoyed Lucien, even more than the swastikas and ugly Gothic-lettered signs the Germans had plastered on all the city’s landmarks.

He stepped inside and was relieved to be in the dark, cool shade of the foyer. He loved these apartment blocks, created by Baron Haussmann when he tore down medieval Paris in the 1850s to re-create the city. Lucien admired the stonework and the strong horizontal lines created by the rows of windows and their metal balconies. He lived in a building on the rue du Caire that was similar to this one.

Since 1931, Lucien had abandoned all historical and classical references in his work to become a pure modernist architect, embracing the aesthetic of the Bauhaus, the style created by the German architect Walter Gropius that pioneered modern architecture and design (the one instance in which Teutonic taste definitely triumphed over the Gallic). Still, he admired these great apartment blocks that Napoleon III had championed. His admiration had grown when he’d visited his brother in New York before the war. The apartment buildings there were junk compared to those in Paris.

He walked to the concierge’s apartment, directly to the left of the entry. The glass door yawned open, and an old woman smoking a cigarette was sitting at a table covered with a garish yellow-flowered cloth.

Lucien cleared his throat, and she said, without moving a muscle and still gazing into space, “He’s in 3B…and the lift’s out.”

As Lucien climbed the ornate curving stair to the third floor, his heart began to race-not only because he was out of shape, but also because he was so anxious. Would Manet have a real project for him, or would this meeting lead to nothing? And if it was a project, would it be a chance to show his talent?

Lucien knew he had talent. He’d been told by a couple of well-known architects, whom he had worked for in Paris after graduating from school. With a few years’ experience and belief in his ability, he then went out on his own. It was hard to build up a practice, doubly hard because he was a modernist and modern architecture was just beginning to be accepted. Most clients still wanted something traditional. Nevertheless, he was able to earn a steady living. But just as an actor needed a break-out role to become a star, an architect needed a career-making project. And Lucien, now thirty-five, hadn’t managed to land that one all-important project. He’d come close only once, when he’d been a finalist for a new public library but had been beaten out by Henri Devereaux, whose uncle’s brother-in-law was the deputy minister of culture. Ability wasn’t enough; one needed the right connections like Devereaux always seemed to have-that and luck.

He looked down at his shoes as they scraped the marble treads of the great stair. They were his client shoes, the one good pair he wore to meetings. A little worn, but they still looked shiny and fashionable, and the soles were in good shape. With leather in short supply, once a Frenchman’s shoes wore out he turned to wooden soles or ones of compressed paper, which didn’t fare so well in winter. Lucien was glad he still had a pair of leather-soled shoes. He hated the sound of wooden soles clattering on the streets of Paris, which reminded him of the clogs worn by peasants.

Lucien was startled when he looked up and found a pair of very expensive dark brown shoes on the third floor landing right in front of his face. Lucien’s gaze traveled up the sharply creased trouser legs to a suit jacket, then to the face of Auguste Manet.

“Monsieur Bernard, what a pleasure it is to meet you.”

Before Lucien reached the top step, Manet extended his hand.

Lucien pulled himself up the railing until he stood next to a lean, white-haired man in his seventies, with cheekbones that seemed to be chiseled from stone. And tall. Manet towered above Lucien. He seemed even taller than de Gaulle.

“The pleasure is my mine, monsieur.”

“Monsieur Gaston was always raving about the office building you did for him, so I had to see it for myself. A beautiful job.” The old man’s handshake was strong and confident, something you’d expect from a man who’d made millions.

They were off to an excellent start, Lucien thought as he took an instant liking to this elderly, aristocratic businessman. Back in 1937, he’d done a building on the rue Servan for Charles Gaston, the owner of an insurance company. Four stories of limestone with a curving glass-stair tower. Lucien thought it was the best thing he’d ever designed.

“Monsieur Gaston was very kind to refer you to me. How can I help you?” Most of the time, Lucien was open to the usual small talk before getting down to business. But he was nervous and wanted to see whether a real job would come out of this.

Manet turned toward the open doors of 3B and Lucien followed. Even the back of Monsieur Manet was impressive. His posture was ramrod straight, and his suit was expensive and fit him impeccably-the German major would’ve wanted the name of his tailor.

“Well, Monsieur Bernard, let me tell you what I’ve got in mind. A guest of mine will be staying here for a while, and I wish to make some special alterations to the apartment to accommodate him,” Manet said as they walked slowly through the place.

Lucien couldn’t imagine what the old man would want. The vacant apartment was gorgeous, with high ceilings and tall windows, ornate wood paneling, huge columns that framed the wide entries into the main rooms, beautiful fireplaces with marble surrounds, and parquet floors. And all the bathrooms and the kitchen looked up to date with porcelain-on-steel sinks and tubs with chrome fixtures. The unit was large by Parisian standards, at least twice as large in floor area as a normal apartment.

Manet stopped and faced Lucien.

“I’ve been told that an architect looks at a space differently from the rest of us. The average person sees a room as it is, but instinctively the architect envisions how it could be changed for the better. Is that true?”

“Absolutely,” replied Lucien with pride. “A man would view a run-down, out-of-date flat as very unappealing, but an architect, in his imagination, would renovate that space into something quite fashionable.”

Lucien was getting excited. Maybe the old man wanted him to redo the place from top to bottom.

“I see. Tell me, monsieur, do you like a challenge? To solve a unique problem?”

“Yes, indeed, I love to come up with a solution for any architectural problem,” said Lucien, “and the more challenging, the better.” He hoped he was telling Manet what he wanted to hear. If Manet asked him to fit the Arc de Triomphe in here, he’d say it was no problem. You didn’t turn down work in wartime. Any fool knew that.

“That’s good.” Manet walked across the salon and put his hand on Lucien’s shoulder in a fatherly way. “I think it’s time to give you a little more background on this project, but first let us talk about your fee. I have a figure in mind-twelve thousand francs.”

“Twelve hundred francs is most generous, monsieur.”

“No, I said twelve thousand.”

There was silence. Digits formed in Lucien’s mind as if a teacher were writing them methodically on a blackboard-first a one, then a two, a comma, and three zeroes. After he mentally verified the number, he said, “Monsieur, that…that is more than generous; it’s ludicrous!”

“Not if your life depended on it.”


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The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan – Book Review

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin

The death of Mr. van Goethem creates a crisis for his three daughters. The are not orphaned, they still have their mother, but with her absinthe drinking they basically just have her in name only. Antoinette had hoped to keep her sisters Marie and Charlotte out of work and allow them their childhood, but it is no longer possible, so instead she helps her sisters find positions as petit rats in the ballet of the Paris Opera, where they can earn seventeen francs a week to train. Antoinette was kicked out of the ballet some time before, but manages to find a part in the stage adaptation of Zola’s L’Assommoir. Things seem to be looking up for the van Goethems with everyone working and Marie even modeling for Edgar Degas – she is the inspiration for his statuette Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen – but their luck can’t last. Antoinette’s new beau, Emile Abadie, is driving a wedge between her and Marie, who is certain that he is bad news.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Painted Girls is that, while Degas himself is not a particularly major player in the book, all of the characters are based on the real people behind his art work. Marie van Goethem was really the inspiration for Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen and even Emile Abadie was the subject of some of Degas’s art, although to say what might constitute a spoiler. Buchanan’s van Goethem family is so vivid that I assumed she had created them from whole cloth, and I am impressed that her story is built largely on the verifiable facts of the van Goethems’s lives.

If you’re looking for a book to completely immerse you in late-19th century Paris, The Painted Girls is for you. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene – Book Review

The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene
Published by Berkley Trade, an imprint of Penguin

Claire Harris Stone is a spoiled, oversexed socialite. Or, at least that is what the world sees, until a man from her past shows up at one of her husband’s parties. Her wealthy husband believed he was marrying a pedigreed woman who would bring him prestige, not the daughter of a pig farmer skilled at playacting. Convinced that her husband will make her disappear at his earliest possible convenience, now that she represents probably embarrassment for him, Claire gets papers from an old friend and hops a boat for Paris. Except it is 1940, and the Paris Claire finds is not the one she expected to find. After an old fling fails to take her in, Claire finds work she loves in a flower shop.

Even a simple job at a flower shop isn’t so simple, though, when your city is overrun by Nazis. Since she entered France without valid papers, she is unable to get the papers required by the Nazis, and thus can’t work, travel, or even buy food legally. When her lack of papers becomes a danger for her friends in the flower shop, Claire turns to acquaintances in the Resistance for false papers. In return, however, she must perform missions for them, spying on the Nazis in the hotels where she delivers flowers.

The Last Time I Saw Paris is an incredibly engaging read. It is one of those books where you blink and suddenly you’ve read 20 pages. Sheene’s prose certainly deserves much of the credit for this, but the real highlight of the book is Claire. She seems like such a potentially obnoxious heroine early on, although even then the you admire her strength and persistence, but her growth as a character and a person hits the perfect note. She is redeemed from her former, selfish self, but in a gradual way that seems perfectly realistic given her circumstances.

Readers looking specifically for the romance angle might be a bit let down, as that relationship is somewhat underdeveloped  as compared to Claire’s personal growth. One can see how a love would develop between asset and handler, so it isn’t entirely unbelievable, but neither is it particularly well fleshed out. However, the rest of the book is so well-drawn that, unless the romance angle is your sole reason for reading, most readers will fail to be disappointed.

Claire is a product of her time, as well as an extremely strong and capable woman. Her story fascinates and captivates, drawing the reader in and keeping the page turning. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Author’s publicist.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

13 rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro – Book Review

13 rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro
Published by Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Hachette

Josianne has a box, the contents of which can induce fevers. Since she received the box, she has gifted it to a variety of men, scholars, but the box always makes its way home to Josianne. Her latest find is Trevor Stratton, an American translator of French who has come to work for her university. She hides the box in a file cabinet in his office, letting him believe he has discovered a hidden gem. And, indeed, the box has a fabulous cache of historical material, surrounding Louise Bruent, a French woman living at 13, rue Therese between World War I and World War II. As Trevor dives deeper into the artifacts in the box, he finds himself increasingly pulled into Lousie’s world.

I cannot decide whether the writing or the illustrations of 13, rue Therese are more striking. The author, Elena Mauli Shapiro, actually lived in an apartment below the real Louise Brunet in Paris and was left with a box of her possessions when the older woman died, many of the contents of which are reproduced in color right in the pages of the book, in line with the text. For example, from page 77:

Despite his horrid spelling and his atrocious punctuation, you can see Camille is clever: he has punned. If you look very closely at the front side of the card, you can just make out that he has rubbed off the manufactured greeting that was previously there and written in his own hand, “Thoughts of the absent.” The French word for “thought” (pensée) is also the French word for “pansy,” which is the flower pictured therein. So, he is giving her flower/thoughts, on paper.

All of the illustrations from the book can actually be found on the book’s website, along with their accompanying text, and even a clip of the audio book.

Shapiro has written an incredibly creative book. Not only has she reimagined and recreated in vivid detail the life of a real woman, illustrating it with real artifacts, but she has also given us a novel that plays with the constraints of time in amazing ways. Trevor becomes obsessed with the Louise and the contents of the box to the extent where he – and the reader – is unsure of where or when he is at time. History and the present collide in a puzzling, but ultimately fascinating way.

You must be ready to think and be immersed when you pick up 13 rue Therese, but for the reader who is prepared for this, it is well worth the read. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells |Indiebound | Amazon*

Check out the 13, rue Therese website, very interactive and cool.

Source: publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.