Two Historical Fictions

Natalie Meg Evans returns to Paris and the world of high fashion in The Secret Vow, but this one is set a generation earlier than her previous novels, opening in late 1918 as Katya (Princess Ekaterina Ulianova Vytenis) and her family run from the Russian secret police, targeted as aristocrats and Tsarists. Katya heads for Paris, where some cousins have already emigrated, with her unstable but determinedly aristocratic mother Irina, her angry younger sister Tatiana, and her older sister Vera’s infant daughter Anoushka.

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Rescued from total disaster in Sweden by Harry Morten, a British/Swedish businessman, Katya and her family arrive in Paris to find a situation far different from what they expected. The Russian emigres in the city are struggling, the money Katya’s far-sighted father invested in France seems out of reach, and Katya’s mother slips into a drug-hazed depression.

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Katya, however, has a spine of steel, not that she recognizes her own strength, and she talks her way into a seamstress position, discovering along the way that Harry Morten runs his textile business from an office in Paris.

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Evans makes the reader feel as though she’s actually visiting Paris in the wake of the First World War, as Katya encounters a variety of characters, some inclined to help her, others only out for themselves—and sometimes it’s not easy to tell them apart. If you’ve read Evans’ earlier books (and I urge you to do so), particularly The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret, you may recognize a character or two in The Secret Vow, as their younger selves sneak into the story. The Secret Vow is a great entry into Evans’ world of historical fiction.

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Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions is the third book in Amy Stewart’s series following the adventures of Constance Kopp, a real woman who did indeed make law enforcement history in New Jersey in the early twentieth century. Constance and her very different sisters, Norma and Fleurette, are fascinating characters, making their way as independent single women in a time and place when that was not at all easy.

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In this book Constance, now deputy sheriff (and jail matron), finds herself dealing with the problems on the women under her care. Some of them have indeed committed crimes, but girls who have done nothing worse than leave their parents’ home for a job and a room in a boarding house can be thrown in jail and sentenced to years in a reformatory at the whim of parents, police, and judges. Constance sees no justice in this, an attitude which just might trip her up when Fleurette decides to spread her wings.

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Stewart’s research is as thorough as possible (don’t skip her “Historical Notes and Sources” at the end of the book), and nearly all the characters in the book are based on real people, wonderfully fleshed out, from the young women accused of immoral behavior to the theater troupe that fascinates Fleurette.

Natalie Meg Evans: The Wardrobe Mistress

Natalie Meg Evans’ latest novel is The Wardrobe Mistress, set in London shortly after the end of World War II. Vanessa Kingcourt, lately released from wartime service in the WAAF, her art college studies long ago disrupted by the war, returns to London for the funeral of the father she hasn’t seen since she was a small child. From that afternoon in the cemetery she finds her life intersecting with that of Commander Alastair Redenhall, a Naval officer married to Vanessa’s childhood friend, and a mysterious woman who was an associate of Vanessa’s father.

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The Wardrobe MistressRedenhall has inherited the theater where Vanessa’s father was working when he died, and hopes to reopen the damaged building and restore it to a working stage. Vanessa, driven by family mysteries and a hopeless attraction to the Commander, manages to land a job as the theater’s wardrobe mistress, a job she’s not at all qualified for.

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Vanessa is a determined protagonist, drawn into the world of the theater by curiosity about her father, a small-time actor who abandoned her and her mother for life on the stage, held there by her growing love of both the theater and Redenhall. People from her past and from the theater company, all of whom knew her father in one way or another, contribute clues in her search for the truth about her family.

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The shadow of war and constant danger hung over Evans’ previous novels, The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret, set in Paris just before and during World War II. Without that element, The Wardrobe Mistress moves at a slower and somewhat less compelling pace. But it evokes the fascinating world of the theater (probably even more so for those more familiar with the works of Oscar Wilde than I am), and of a time when divorce was scandalous and very difficult, when homosexuality was a crime, and when nearly everything was rationed.

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Natalie Meg Evans’ novels, from the British publisher Quercus, are available as ebooks from Amazon, and on paper from the Book Depository in the UK (good prices and free shipping anywhere).

 

Natalie Meg Evans: A Gown of Thorns

Natalie Meg Evans’ short novel, A Gown of Thorns, begins in contemporary (2003) France, as Shauna Vincent arrives in the French wine country. Passed over for the research job she was expecting at home in Britain, she has taken a summer au pair post with a distant relative on her mother’s side of the family, a woman she has never met, Isabelle Duval. Hoping merely to survive until fall and get back to something worthy of her academic degree, Shauna has no idea what to expect at the Chateau de Chemignac.

A Gown of ThornsThe contemporary inhabitants of the chateau are a varied lot. Isabelle is warm and welcoming. Her uncle Albert is not (he hates redheads, particularly English redheads like Shauna). Neither is Rachel Moorcroft, the manipulative young English woman caring for the horses and the tourist trade. The children, Olive and Nico, are exhausting but charming. The most fascinating to Shauna is Laurent de Chemignac, Isabelle’s nephew and the master of the Chemignac winery.

There is another story at Chemignac, the tale of the English spy known as Yvonne Rosel and Henri de Chemignac, Laurent’s grandfather, and a few dangerous days in 1943. Albert has one version of that story, an amateur historian in the nearby town of Garzenac another, and Shauna soon finds herself drawn into Yvonne’s story in the most inexplicable ways.

Is the chateau haunted? Shauna is a scientist and certainly doesn’t believe in such things, even after she tries on the forbidden gown of thorns hidden away in the wardrobe of the strangely unsettling tower room. The sound of geese where there are none, the glimpse of a silhouette through a long walled up window, and the discovery of a cave that vanishes have Shauna questioning her own sanity.

Family connections known and unknown help to peel away the fate of Yvonne, a mystery that Shauna and Laurent must solve before they can find their own destinies.

Evans’ previous novels, The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret (both of which I loved), are set in Paris before and during World War II. This shorter novel moves to the contemporary wine country, blending skillfully with the wartime countryside. Paranormal or psychological, A Gown of Thorns blends mystery, romance, and wine in a thoroughly satisfying vintage.

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