Sunday, December 11, 2016

To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin, a literary love story set in Belle Époque Paris

They meet while aloft in a hot air balloon over Paris in 1887. Caitriona Wallace is an impoverished Glaswegian widow acting as chaperone to the wealthy Arrol siblings as they travel Europe on their Grand Tour. One of Gustave Eiffel’s engineers, Émile Nouguier needs to marry among his class to please his mother and bolster the family finances.

Although Alice Arrol is a naive teenager, she’s a potential match for Émile, but he finds himself more intrigued by Cait. However, in returning his affections, Cait would be choosing passion over honor.

Their beautifully restrained love story, told in a refreshingly unhurried manner and grounded in the era’s social constraints, gains complexity as Alice and her brother, Jamie, rebel against their expected roles. Nouguier is a historical figure, and readers get a close-up perspective on the Eiffel Tower’s step-by-step construction.

Drawn with care and suffused with stylish ambiance, Colin’s (The Glimmer Palace, 2008) Paris is a city of painters, eccentric aristocrats, desperate prostitutes, secret lovers, and the magnificent artistic vision taking shape high above them. Devotees of the Belle Époque should relish it.

To Capture What We Cannot Keep was published by Flatiron Books in late November (hardcover, 304pp, $25.99).  This review first appeared in Booklist's 10/1 issue.

There are two other things I should say explicitly about this book: it's a work of historical literary fiction, and although a love story forms an important part of the plot, it's not a romance by genre. Readers expecting more of a traditional romance will likely find the pacing too slow for their tastes. Also, as with other literary novels, the characterizations are complex, subtle, and multi-layered.  The cover is great and fitting, but the title doesn't really do it for me. It feels like it was chosen to appeal to the many fans of All the Light We Cannot See.

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