In November 1909, young Englishwoman Maud Heighton is in Paris pursuing her dream of becoming a painter. She studies at Lafond’s Academie, one of the few respectable art studios that is open to women. However, despite having some talent as an artist, Maud is living in extreme poverty and will soon have to choose between starving or returning to her family in England, which would be an admission of failure. Fortunately, Maud befriends Tatiana Koltsova, a fellow student at the Academie who is friendly, charming, and rich. Tanya takes Maud under her wing and eventually helps her to get a job as an English tutor for the Morel family. Both Sylvie Morel and her older brother Christian seem eager for Maud to accept their job offer, which includes room and board. But while Maud accepts the job gratefully, she can’t help feeling that it’s a little too good to be true. And the more she learns about the Morels, the more sinister they appear, until eventually she must seek out Tanya’s help to extricate herself from an unbearable situation.
I love historical fiction and was intrigued by the premise of this book, but I ended up with mixed feelings about it. First, I did love the setting, especially because it depicts a less glamorous version of Paris than many other books and movies do. Although Maud comes from the English gentry, she is forced to live a much more bohemian life in Paris, befriending people from each extreme of the class spectrum. And because she is not rich, she doesn’t have much opportunity to participate in the exciting, glamorous activities one usually associates with Paris during the Belle Époque. However, I wasn’t particularly invested in Maud as a character or in the plot involving her relationship with the Morels. It moved very slowly and eventually became a psychological thriller, which isn’t quite what I expected when I picked up the book. I thought both Tanya and Yvette, the artists’ model at the Academie, were more interesting characters, and I wish the book had focused more on their stories. That said, I did like the book’s denouement, which takes place during the great Paris flood of 1910. I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, but it’s not my favorite offering in the genre.