Tuesday, August 02, 2016

La Belle Époque, a flourishing setting in new historical fiction

Francophiles, rejoice! Novels inspired by French history are surging in popularity, in particular those set during the Belle Époque. This period, which translates as “the beautiful age,” spanned roughly from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 through the beginning of WWI in 1914. The era, which mirrored the Gilded Age period in American history, encompassed industrial growth, political stability, scientific advancement, and the flourishing of artistic and literary expression. That said, despite the economic and cultural prosperity experienced by the middle and upper classes in France, the country’s impoverished citizens saw little change in their circumstances.

A broad palette of topics is represented in historical novels about the Belle Époque: impressionist painters and their circle, the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the Expositions Universelles (World's Fairs) of 1889 and 1900, the Dreyfus Affair, and the stark contrasts between the city’s rich and poor. The discovery in 2010 of an apartment once owned by demimondaine Marthe de Florian – which had remained untouched since her granddaughter fled Paris during WWII – invigorated interest in the elegant glamour of the period. Madame de Florian’s abandoned apartment has directly inspired several multi-period novels so far, including Michelle Gable’s A Paris Apartment and Ella Carey’s Paris Time Capsule

Many of these novels present a cross-section of French society rather than focusing exclusively on the wealthy elite. For readers enchanted by this vibrant historical period, here are 13 recent and upcoming novels to look for.



While caring for her ill grandmother, a young woman finds herself compelled to discover the provenance of a broken sculpture that depicts a woman from the Belle Époque. Multi-period.   Ballantine, September 2016.



A family saga about a female artist, her adopted brother’s mysterious disappearance, and a heap of surprising secrets, set in Paris of the 1870s. St. Martin’s, July 2016.



After finding a letter written by Belle Époque courtesan Marthe de Florian that references her great-great-aunt Louisa, a modern art curator jets over to Paris in search of answers. A multi-period novel, set now and in the 1890s. Lake Union, October 2016.



This literary novel set in 1870s Paris, over ten years in the writing, follows a talented American-born soprano who is shocked to find hints to her dark and long-concealed past in an opera libretto. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 2016.



This love story between an impoverished lady’s companion and an engineer of higher birth plays out during the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Flatiron, November 2016.



At the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole in Provence of 1889, the warden’s wife carefully observes the latest arrival, a painter whom many say is mad. Virago, June 2016.



The little-known story of Eva Gouel, seamstress at the Moulin Rouge, and her passionate affair with up-and-coming artist Pablo Picasso during the later years of the Belle Époque in the early 20th century. MIRA, August 2014.



In this second in the Achille Lefebvre mystery series set in fin-de-siècle Paris, the inspector gets called away from a holiday with his wife to investigate a murder in a public park. See my interview with the author about book 1, The Devil in Montmartre. Pegasus, August 2016.



This romantic mystery, set in France of 1909 and Cambridge of 1988, centers on a star-crossed love affair taking place against the backdrop of a famous Parisian bakery, the Patisserie Clermont. St. Martin’s, September 2016.



Emily Cabot, the protagonist of five previous historical mysteries, travels to Paris in 1900 in the company of society matron Bertha Palmer, whose necklace is stolen.  Additional crimes ensue. Allium Press of Chicago, September 2016.



When an Englishwoman travels to Paris to pursue her art in the year 1909, she soon finds herself destitute. After she finds a position as a companion, she gets drawn into her new employers’ dark secrets. St. Martin’s, November 2014.



This first novel in the Daughters of La Lune series set in 1890s Paris is a dark Gothic tale about art, passion, family secrets, and a mysterious haunting. Atria, March 2015.



Opening in the year 1881, Webb’s biographical novel reveals the love affair between sculptors Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, whose artistic talents were tragically eclipsed by his. Plume, January 2015.

9 comments:

  1. A great collection - thanks!

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    1. Thanks, glad you liked the post!

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  2. As always, Sarah, thanks for your roundup. I can already see a title or two to read. Incidentally, I reviewed The Paris Winter a few weeks ago, so is this the paperback edition you're talking about? As for the book, it's a first-rate thriller, and the Paris flood of 1910, which influences the narrative, will no doubt remind readers of the less catastrophic but still frightening flooding that occurred earlier this year.

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    1. Hi Larry, The Paris Winter is one of the titles I'm most looking forward to reading, and your earlier review is a good reason why that is. I'd included a few older titles in my list (from the past two years) because they sounded interesting and fit the category.

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  3. I'm just finishing writing up my March 2014 (!) reading recap, when I read The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. It's set in 1878 Paris and revolves around the model for Edgar Degas' statue Little Dancer. She & her family lived in poverty.

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    1. Oh yes, The Painted Girls is another good one to add to the list. I bought a copy ages ago but haven't read it yet - and really should!

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  4. Great choices, fascinating era. I'm about to start reading The Art of Rebellion by Brenda Leahy Johnson, which comes highly recommended.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning the Art of Rebellion, Gabriele - hope it's as good as you've heard!

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    2. Thank you, Sarah, and Gabriele. A small note: The Art of Rebellion, published by Rebelight Publishing, is under my "pen name", Brenda Joyce Leahy.

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