Review: Vivien Horler
The Postmistress of Paris, by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper)
One of the delights of historical fiction, done well, is the information and insight it gives the reader into the past.
And Med Waite Clayton’s historical fiction is done well, in fact done beautifully. It feels a bit strange referring to a novel about World War 2 as “historical fiction”; I was born just seven years after that war ended, so what does that make me?
But today there are vanishingly few people left who have any memory of that conflict, so a novel like this is our best way of connecting with the events and emotions of that time. (With Putin’s war in Ukraine of course, we could also watch the news.)
In The Postmistress of Paris Clayton returns to Europe, this time under the shadow of pending war, but the story here is very different from the bestselling, prize-winning The Last Train to London, about the rescue of thousands of Jewish children from Vienna in 1939.
It is however, like Last Train, based on history and many real people. The beautiful American heiress heroine Nanée recalls the adventures of Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who worked with American journalist Varian Fry to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of France after the war began.
Clayton includes a paragraph taken from Gold’s book Crossroads Marseille: “Once back in Paris, I learned that most Americans were scurrying home. I decided to stay on. I had lived in France for eight years and felt a part of her. I had learned to love her people, her history, her landscapes, and her old stones. If the French could take it, so could I. Besides, too many extraordinary things were in the making and I didn’t want to miss out.”
After the armistice Gold went to Marseille, planning to leave France, but stayed on, aiding Fry’s efforts to help refugees. She rented a manor, Villa Air-Bel, where she lived with a number of artists and writers and her dog Dagobert.
The villa, Fry, many of the artists and intellectuals and Dagobert find their way into this novel, which contains a tender romance, the bravery of a journey into occupied France to rescue a little Jewish girl, the touchingness of the relationship between the child and her widowed father, and a nail-biting account of a perilous trek over the Pyrenees into neutral Spain.
At one point, when someone tries to persuade to avoid the Nanée of the dangers she faces, she replies airly: “No one suspects American women of anything but needlepoint. Men so seldom imagine us capable of the things we’re capable of.”
The novel is also a celebration of the redemptive power of art, which is contrasted against the terror of war.
I found The Postmistress of Paris to be utterly engaging and I heartily recommend it.