From the New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Key comes the story of a mysterious work of art and the woman inspired to uncover its history in the City of Light.
After surviving the accident that took her mother’s life, Claire Broussard has worked hard to escape her small Louisiana hometown. But these days she feels something is lacking. Abruptly leaving her lucrative job in Chicago, Claire returns home to care for her ailing grandmother. There, she unearths a beautiful piece of artwork that her great-grandfather sent home from Paris after World War II.
At her grandmother’s urging, Claire travels to Paris to track down the century-old mask-making atelier where the object, known only as “L’Inconnue”—or The Unknown Woman—was created. Under the watchful eye of a surly mask-maker, Claire discovers a cache of letters that offers insight into the life of the Belle Epoque woman immortalized in the work of art. As Claire explores the unknown woman’s tragic fate, she begins to unravel deeply buried secrets in her own life.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Juliet Blackwell was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, the youngest child of a jet pilot and an editor. She graduated with a degree in Latin American studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and went on to earn master’s degrees in anthropology and social work. While in graduate school, she published several articles based on her research with immigrant families from Mexico and Vietnam, as well as one full-length translation: Miguel León-Portilla’s seminal work, Endangered Cultures. Juliet taught medical anthropology at SUNY–Albany, was producer for a BBC documentary, and worked as an elementary school social worker. Upon her return to California, she became a professional artist and ran her own decorative painting and design studio for more than a decade. In addition to mainstream novels, Juliet pens the New York Times bestselling Witchcraft Mysteries and the Haunted Home Renovation series. As Hailey Lind she wrote the Agatha Award–nominated Art Lover’s Mysteries series. She makes her home in northern California, but spends as much time as possible in Europe and Latin America.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
February 27, 1898
Sabine creeps across the dark studio before dawn, beseeching the silent faces not to betray her. They watch her every move, mute witnesses to her crime.
Slipping through the door, she winces at the scraping sound of metal on metal as she pauses to latch it behind her. Fog envelops her, the mist cutting through her threadbare blouse and underthings, wet needles of cold air piercing her skin.
Sabine thinks longingly of the two dresses she left behind in the cupboard. He’d bought them for her. They are the finest garments she has ever worn: one blue, one green. Made of the softest lawn, a material so lush and supple it beckoned to her the first time she donned the garments; often she would caress the skirt, reveling in the sumptuous sensations that tickled her palm. He teased her for that.
Take nothing with you.
She has donned the heavy black skirt and thin gray blouse she wore when they’d met in the square in Pigalle. When she thought he was her salvation. Before.
Her feet are clad in her ancient black boots. The dove gray shawl her mother had knit for her sixteenth Christmas is her only defense against the night’s chill. She wears her hair pinned back in the style he likes: an old-fashioned twist on either side of her head.
As though she stepped out of another time.
Also abandoned is a gold armband, still in its nest of fine black velvet, in a blue box upon the nightstand. The tortoiseshell comb for her hair. Her little hand mirror. The candle stubs and pocket-sized book of sonnets, her sketchbook and charcoal. She even leaves behind the pillowcase in which she had packed her few belongings when she’d fled her childhood home in the countryside so long ago.
Before Paris. Before she was an artist’s model. Before Maurice.
The damp air stings her cheeks with cold kisses. Dim light from the gas streetlamps casts an amber glow on the cobblestones, glinting off puddles from last night’s rain.
They seem to flash a warning: You will never get away with it. You will never get away.
Sabine keeps her head down, walking as quickly as she dares. Listening.
She hears water dripping from a gargoyle at the side of the church. A horse whinnying a block or two away. A dog barking behind a stout wooden door. The tapping of her boots on the paving stones, echoing the pounding of her heart.
Her own harsh breathing is the loudest sound.
And . . . something else?
She freezes. Holds her breath. Listens.
Sabine runs. Runs for her life.
She makes it as far as the quai du Louvre. To the Pont Neuf.
The bridge that crosses the Seine.
This was probably a mistake, Claire thought to herself as she wrestled her luggage cart—why did she always choose the one with a wobbly wheel?—out the exit of the New Orleans airport. The sliding glass doors whooshed closed behind her, cutting her off from the terminal’s unnatural coolness and leaving her mired in the soupy atmosphere of July, Louisiana-style.
Louisiana. It occurred to Claire that had she been blindfolded and her ears covered, she would still know where she was. She could feel it, smell something achingly familiar in the air. Humid tendrils of heat reached out and wrapped around her, dampness whispering along her skin, greeting her like an old lover.
A lover she’d left many years ago with a mix of regret and relief, an abstract fondness tangled up with the fervent desire to move on.
Claire took a deep breath of the hot, moist air, blew it out slowly, and searched the vehicles vying for curb access outside of baggage claim. When she’d cosigned the loan for her cousin Ty’s new rig, he’d told her it was “huge, black, and shiny.” One good thing about having more cousins in Plaquemines Parish than she could count: there was always someone to give her a ride to or from the airport.
A small group of already inebriated twentysomething tourists, apparently intent on finding Mardi Gras out of season, jostled Claire on their jocular way to the taxi stand; she barely managed to grab her computer case as it was knocked from her shoulder. A drip of sweat rolled down the small of her back. She stood with one hand on her luggage; other than a few boxes of books and souvenirs she had sent through the mail, the two big suitcases, one duffel bag, and huge purse were all she owned in the world. She’d sold or given away the rest before leaving Chicago.
This was probably a mistake, Claire thought again. The phrase had become something of a mantra ever since her cousin Jessica had phoned the week before last to say their grandmother was at death’s door.
“Mammaw needs you, Chance,” Jessica had said. Claire’s relatives knew her as Chance; their grandmother went by Mammaw. “She’s speaking in Cajun; no one can understand her but Uncle Remy. And you know how he is.”
When Claire received the call, she had been sitting in her climate-controlled office in Chicago, wondering what a person wore to the opera. Was her standard black office garb—perhaps dressed up with some chunky ethnic jewelry and a colorful pashmina—enough, or was this more of a sparkles-and-tulle situation? From the vantage point of her desk she could see acres of taupe carpeting and a maze of cubicles, old brick factory walls chicly renovated with skylights, and steel-and-glass dividers for “No-Miss Systems: A Software Company.” She looked out over the muted officescape, imagining Mammaw’s house and thinking: If Jessica’s was a voice from her past, what was her future? A night at the opera? Really?
You’re getting pretty big for your britches, Chance Broussard.
As her newly ex-boyfriend Sean would say: in this, as in most things, Claire was just the teensiest bit conflicted.
Claire finally spotted Ty’s truck, looming large and new in a sea of smaller cars and dented pickups. Ignoring the blare of horns, he double-parked, hopped out, gave Claire a bear hug, then tossed her leaden bags in the bed of the truck like so much kindling.
Ty drove toward the small town in Plaquemines Parish where they had been raised. They chatted a little about her life in the “big city,” his new truck, the job situation out on the oil rigs, and the precarious state of Mammaw’s health, but further conversation soon fizzled out. Claire’s relatives worked hard, disdained complainers, saluted the flag, and enjoyed their football. When they started drinking, the young men might get raucous and the old folks were prone to spinning long, involved tales in which layers of fact and fiction, history and fantasy merged and overlapped. But unless they were in storytelling mode, her cousins remained largely silent, their thoughts and hopes and dreams kept locked away under sweat-stained New Orleans Saints or Ragin’ Cajuns ball caps.
So Claire was free to watch the scenery—flat, full of brush and low trees and crisscrossed by creeks and bayous—and to ponder.
After hanging up with Jessica, Claire had finished up the day’s work, talked to her team supervisor, and hurried to meet Sean for a drink at the latest trendy lounge, a former dive bar that had been revamped with an ironically 1950s décor à la Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. They ordered craft cocktails made with locally sourced ingredients that took about ten minutes apiece for the bewhiskered “mixologists” to produce and that cost easily four times as much as the drinks had in the bar’s former incarnation.
After their cocktails arrived, they settled in at a table and Claire told Sean she had given notice at No-Miss and was going home to take care of her grandmother.
“Just like that?” Sean asked, a stunned look on his handsome face, grapefruit-bitters-inspired cocktail held aloft halfway to his mouth.
“Well, as soon as they can replace me at work.”
“But . . . what about me? What about us?”
“I . . .” Claire trailed off. The sorry truth was, she hadn’t thought much about Sean’s reaction to her sudden news.
Of course he was important to her. Claire cared for Sean. A lot. They’d met not long after graduating college, and Sean—an Evanston native—had introduced Claire to the wonders of city life. Sean took her to fancy restaurants and cocktail parties; he taught her how to hail a cab and gripe about the El and stroll through the Museum of Art while making the appropriately erudite comments. With Sean by her side, Claire developed a taste for Thai food and Ethiopian food and learned to eat raw fish—who knew?—at sushi bars. She even became accustomed to paying the equivalent of an entire breakfast back home for a simple cup of French roast at the chic café on the corner near her downtown office. They were young and well paid; it was fun.
But lately Sean had been pushing for more. Their friends were starting to marry, settle down and buy houses, have children. Claire liked Sean and enjoyed being with him. But there was something lacking.
For years she’d been driven: first to get out of her small hometown, then to finish college, then to get a job, then to make more money. Now what? Sitting hunched over her keyboard ten hours a day, going out to trendy clubs on the weekend, able to afford a nice place to live and new clothes, and getting her hair done in a salon . . . Was this what she had worked so hard to attain? Claire used to be able to lose herself down the rabbit hole of her work: writing code, beta testing, and resolving glitches. But now she wondered: Did any of it matter in the long run? Is this all there is?
And when she tried to picture herself settling down with Sean and starting a family, she felt the waters closing over her head, her lungs screaming for air. She felt like she was drowning.
“Tell me what’s going on, Claire.” Sean had covered Claire’s hand with his, squeezed gently. “You get one phone call and suddenly you’re ready to give up your whole life here in Chicago? I’m sorry your grandmother’s not doing well, but she’s getting up there in age, right? It’s not unexpected, is it? Couldn’t you just go for a visit, like a. . . ?”
Like a normal person, Claire finished his thought in her mind. But no matter how much she might enjoy expensive cocktails, Claire had never felt normal in Chicago.
When she’d first arrived at the University of Chicago, a scholarship kid fresh off the plane from Louisiana, Chance had stuck out like a sore thumb. She wore the wrong clothes, sported a frizzy home perm two decades out of fashion (according to the blunt but sympathetic assessment of her roommate Zoey, who was from New York City and knew about such things), and spoke with an accent as thick as a cloud of moustiques over the bayou on a warm summer evening.
At first she had found everything—the chatty students, the scholarly professors, the city traffic—intimidating. Just as she had at home, she spent her nights hiding in her room or studying in the library.
But after a few lonely weeks Chance had made a decision. After all, she hadn’t fought her way out of Plaquemines Parish just to let life pass her by. So she applied her formidable study skills to observing the behavior of the other girls: their wardrobes, their intonations, the way they giggled and joked about boys, and about life in general. How easily they reneged on promises, how they said yes when they meant no and no when they meant yes. How they never sat down for a full meal but ate only stalks of celery with peanut butter one day, huge bowls of ice cream the next.
She started introducing herself as Claire instead of Chance, and learned to drink and smoke, to flirt and “party.” She told long, rambling stories about her hometown that her friends found hysterical, and made a feature of her “quaint” bayou accent. For the first time in her life, Claire succeeded socially as well as academically. The poor little Cajun girl managed to make some friends, attract a few boys, and still graduate cum laude. She landed a good job as a software engineer in Chicago with a starting salary that was more than she had ever thought possible, a small fortune by the standards of Plaquemines Parish, where everyone had said: That Chance! Just look at her now! She’s the American Dream, that one—coming from nothing and making something of herself.
But it had been years now, and Claire no longer felt like she was living the dream.
Claire used to ask why she hadn’t died alongside her mother when she was little, when Lizzie Broussard’s ten-year-old Ford veered off the road and landed upside down on its roof in the bayou. And Mammaw always said: The Lord’s got something special planned for you, sha, you mark my words. Your mother’s voice reached out to rescue you—it was a miracle.
But now Claire asked herself: other than the size of her paycheck, was she really better off than if she had taken that refinery job back home straight out of high school and grabbed a beer with the gang down at Charlie Bob’s after work?
Claire knew what Sean’s answer would be: a resounding yes.
“Mammaw isn’t just a grandmother,” Claire found herself saying to Sean. Trying her best to explain. “She raised me. She saved my life.”
“I know how important she is to you,” he said, his voice gentle. “And, of course, you should absolutely go see her. Take a couple of weeks, claim some family time. In fact, I could do the same and go with you.”
Claire smiled and sipped her cocktail. “You said my hometown reminded you of that movie Deliverance.”
Claire had never seen the film but she understood the reference.
“For you, I’d be willing to risk it,” Sean said with a chuckle.
Claire knew he was glad to see her smile, that he assumed he’d won the argument. Sean was a nice man, easygoing and thoughtful. But he was used to Claire accommodating his desires. Honestly, she didn’t much care whether they went to the symphony or the opera, or ate Vietnamese or Thai food for dinner, or went to the museum gala or the festival of lights at the harbor. In all these things, Claire was happy to let him choose. But this was different.
“I’m not happy in Chicago, Sean. It’s not enough, somehow. It’s hard to explain, but . . . I want something else.”
“So you’re going to move back to Plaquemines Parish?” He was getting angry now, pressing his lips together, his words taking on a clipped edge. “You hate it there. How many times have you told me that you never fit in, that you wanted something more out of life? You worked so hard to escape—how can you even think about going back?”
“It’s just for a while, so I can be with Mammaw. Jessica says it probably won’t be long now. I’ll figure out something from there. I might even come back to Chicago—I really don’t know. I’m sorry, Sean. You’re a wonderful man. I just—”
“This is a mistake, Claire,” Sean cut her off. “You’re making a mistake.”
“You may be right,” she’d conceded.
Probably it was a mistake. But it was her mistake to make.
Ten days later Claire boarded a plane and headed to Plaquemines Parish, where they drank cheap coffee laced with chicory, no one even thought about attending the opera, and Claire—with her fancy college education and big-city ways—now stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Why is there a tree on the roof?” Claire asked as Ty pulled up in front of Mammaw’s house.
“Storm came through coupla days ago,” said Ty, peering at the greenery atop the little white clapboard bungalow. “Anyway, it’s just a branch.”
“Still,” Claire said. “It’s a very large branch.”
“First I seen it,” said Ty with a shrug. “I’d take care of it now but gotta get back to work. Prob’ly Remy’s on it.”
Uncle Remy came out of the house at that moment, smiling, gray haired and slightly stooped. In photos of him as a young man in his uniform, Remy had a broad smile and kind brown eyes. He had been a gifted mechanic, could fix anything ever since he was a very young boy; everyone said so. But he’d returned from Vietnam with a head injury, and even though it seemed like he’d healed on the outside, inside he had changed. He’d moved in with Mammaw and never left.
Mammaw always called him “slow.” She said it right in front of him, and Remy never seemed to take offense. It wasn’t until Claire had gone off to Chicago that she started to think there might be something wrong with saying things like that. Remy’s “slowness” had always seemed a fact of life, like being tall or having curly hair; she had never thought much about it as a girl. He was Chance’s best childhood friend—her only real friend. He was a hide-and-seek champion, and could even be talked into playing Barbies if she promised to play checkers in return.
“Hey!” Remy called out, shuffling down the broken concrete path. “Come see! It’s my Chance! We missed you, Chance!”
She jumped out of the truck and ran to give Remy a hug, holding on for a long time. He smelled slightly of mothballs and spices, an achingly familiar scent that spoke to her of home and gumbo and family.
Sean was probably right; this whole idea was likely a mistake. But this—this moment—was worth the trip.
“We’re gonna have to call someone ’bout that roof,” Uncle Remy fretted as soon as she pulled away. So much for the welcome home. Claire wasn’t surprised; Remy lived in the present. He started wringing his hands and shifting from one foot to the other. “Branch went clear through the tar paper, and what if it rains again?”
“Don’t worry, Remy,” Claire said. “I’ll take care of it. Isn’t cousin Hog in construction?”
“He’s on the shrimpers now,” Remy said, grabbing the duffel bag from the back of the truck. Ty brought the heavier suitcases in through the front door, bade them farewell, and hurried back to work.
“They’re all on the shrimpers these days,” Remy continued. “Them that’s not on the rigs.”
“I’ll call someone else, then. Don’t worry.”
“Jessica’ll know what to do. She knows everything.”
“Good idea. Let me say hello to Mammaw, and then we’ll figure it out. Okay?”
“Okay.” He nodded and seemed to physically relax. “Glad you’re home, Chance. Sure enough glad you’re home.”
As always when stepping through Mammaw’s yellow door, Claire was filled with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia mixed with a panicky urge to flee, to run back to her urban life of overpriced drinks and refined beauty and people who followed the international news.
Mammaw had quit smoking a decade ago, but still the house smelled of stale cigarette smoke, old books, and Dr Pepper. An ancient window-mounted air-conditioning unit rattled and spewed out enough cool to take the edge off the heat, but nonetheless the small living room, crowded with furniture and bookshelves, was stuffy. Beyond the front room was the kitchen, and to one side were two bedrooms and a bath. That was it. After Chance had come to live here, she had slept on the couch or, sometimes, with Mammaw in her bed.
“She’s awake and waitin’ on you,” said Remy. “She’s only speakin’ Cajun, so it’s good you come. You want a pop?”
“No, thanks. I’m okay for now.”
Claire was struck with a vivid memory of the first time she had walked into this house, age six, knowing she would be staying. That she wouldn’t have to go back to her father’s. That she was safe. Mammaw had been making salmon croquettes; she met Chance at the door while wiping her hands on a towel, then escorted her into the kitchen, lifted her onto the counter, and poured her a Dixie cup of sweet tea.
She’d declared to Chance that, starting the next day, they would speak only Cajun in her home.
“But . . . I don’t speak Cajun,” protested Chance, nervous at the thought.
“You’ll learn, just like I learned English. When I was little we spoke Cajun at home, and when I went to school they wanted me to speak English, ’cept I didn’t speak no English. If the teachers heard me speakin’ my language they’d make me kneel on rice.”
“Kneel on rice?”
“Yup,” she said, her gnarled, capable hands mixing canned fish, chopped onions, bread crumbs, egg, and spices for salmon croquettes in a huge periwinkle blue ceramic bowl. Chance watched as the pink goo squeezed through her grandmother’s fingers like lumpy Play-Doh. “Go on now and wash your hands. He’p me make these patties.”
“But . . . isn’t rice soft?” Chance had asked, jumping off the counter and pulling the stepstool to the old porcelain farmer’s sink, reaching up to turn on the ancient brass tap, wetting her hands. She picked up the huge bar of strong lye soap Mammaw bought down at the Piggly Wiggly and rubbed it between her hands while she sang the entire song of “Happy Birthday to You” in her mind, the way she’d been taught.
Chance was always careful to do as she’d been taught.
She rinsed her hands, then dried them on a faded towel, stiff from line-drying. It chafed, and the strong soap made her hands feel dry and raw. Clean, through and through.
“I’m not talkin’ ’bout kneelin’ in no cooked rice like in jambalaya, sha,” Mammaw said with a laugh. “That’d be like a pillow. This was raw, hard grains. They dig into your skin, feel like they goin’ right up on under your kneecap. You try it, see how you like it.”
“No, thank you, ma’am.”
Mammaw laughed again and scooped out a ball of the salmon mixture, slapping it in the palm of her hands to form the croquette.
“You a good girl, Chance. Yup, the good Lord’s got somethin’ special in mind for you, sha, mark my words. That’s how come he spared you, helped your mama to speak from beyond the veil.”
Claire reached into the bowl, took a handful of the goo, and concentrated on forming it into a patty. She tried as hard as she could, but when she set it on the platter it looked like a raggedy-edged lump next to her grandmother’s smooth discs. Her eyes flew to Mammaw’s.
“Now, you hadn’t ought to be so skeered all the time, sha,” Mammaw said, picking up the misshapen wad and smoothing the sides with a quick, practiced movement. “Everybody clumsy when they little. No shame in that. Takes time to learn to do things. Time and practice.”
Chance tried harder with the second patty, her tongue planted firmly at the corner of her mouth.
“’Sides,” Mammaw continued. “I don’t ’spect the Lord saved you to make you good at cookin’. There’s the rest of us for that. He had ’nother purpose for you. ’Nother purpose entirely.”
“What is it?”
“Don’t rightly know, sha. None my business, when it come right down to it. But it’s somethin’ special. Mark my words.”
Claire stepped into Mammaw’s sky blue room. It was so small it barely fit the double bed with its chunky bedstead, World’s Best Mammaw in childish needlepoint covering one garishly colored pillow.
And Mammaw. Jessica had warned Claire that Mammaw wasn’t eating much, but nonetheless it was a shock to see her so tiny, as though she were shrinking in on herself, would continue dissipating until she disappeared into her smooth white sheets. She always used to be stout, her chubby arms and generous bosom a welcome refuge for a scared little girl. Still, Mammaw’s light sherry brown eyes were sharp as always, her smile unwavering.
“Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes, sha?”
Claire perched on the edge of the bed and hugged her grandmother, afraid to squeeze too tight. She could feel Mammaw’s bones and the rapid thudding of her pulse through the thin pink cotton of her nightgown.
Once, in the third grade, Claire found an injured bird on the way home from school. It felt like this in the palm of her hand: tiny, fragile, heart beating wildly. Remy had helped her build a little nest out of newspaper and leaves; they dug up some earthworms but the poor frightened creature ignored their offerings. It hadn’t lasted the day. They buried it in a shoe box behind the old Ford sitting, rusting and useless, next to the garage for as long as she could remember. Remy marked the spot with a crude wooden cross that still stood.
Mammaw pulled away, and Claire felt the sting of tears in her eyes.
“Don’t you dare be sad for me now, sha,” said Mammaw in Cajun, waving a finger. “I’m ’bout ready to go. All I need is two things: to finish up a few letters, and make the plans for my funeral. And I want to die here at home, ya hear? Don’t take me to no hospital. Promise me.”
Claire nodded, unable to speak.
Mammaw had never spent much time on sentiment. She took care of business; this was as much a part of her as her quick laugh, the way she ate with her mouth open and believed (and repeated and expounded upon) everything she read in the tabloid newspapers and—as she got older and had trouble moving around—how she would roll across the kitchen linoleum in an office chair, pushing herself off from the table to the counter and back again.
“I got some specifications for my funeral,” Mammaw continued. “But first, go help Remy with that tree what fell on the roof so he’ll stop talkin’ about it. I swear that boy could worry the birds out the trees. Move any of my treasures that might be in the way up there, will you, sha?”
“Of course I will,” Claire said. “I’ll get right on it. But can’t I get you something first, though? Something to eat, maybe?”
“I’ve got a hankerin’ for some gumbo. Maybe you could get the fixin’s for it for tomorrow supper.”
“I will. Nothing right now?”
She shook her head. “I’m gonna take me a nap. You go on now.”
Claire kissed her grandmother’s soft cheek—it smelled almondy, a mix of Jergens lotion and baby powder—and did as she was told. First she called a roofing company that agreed to come out the next day. Then she changed into old jeans and pulled on a T‑shirt.
Claire met Remy in his bedroom and asked for his help. She stepped into his closet, shoved her way past the musty army uniforms and the dark blue suit Mammaw insisted he keep for weddings and funerals, and, using her fingertips, pushed gently on one of the panels at the back of the closet until it popped open, revealing a wooden ladder bolted to the rear wall.
Claire wondered how she had managed to spend time up in this attic when she was young. It was sweltering. Sweat beaded on her forehead within minutes; it was so hot and close it was hard to breathe as she started moving boxes to the undamaged section of the attic. A few—the ones with correspondence and photographs—she handed down to Remy to stack in a corner of his bedroom. She worked as fast as she could, driven to escape the heat.
But when Claire got to a crate shoved up under the eaves, she slowed her frenetic pace.
“What’s this old wooden crate from Paris, Remy? Do you know?” she called down the ladder.
His head popped up through the trapdoor. “I don’t rightly know. I don’t come up here much. You should ask Mammaw.”
As soon as Claire approached the crate, the memories came flooding back.
Excerpted from "Letters from Paris"
Copyright © 2016 Juliet Blackwell.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion:
Claire finds herself at a crossroads in life, and takes off to Paris. Do you find her actions precipitous? Could you imagine picking up and starting over in a foreign land? What factors made it possible for her to do so?
Have you ever felt that you just didn’t belong whether in your new circumstances, or when you went back home, or both? If so, did you adjust over time, or did you take steps to change your situation?
Have you ever been so intrigued by an item – a piece of art, a letter, an old journal—that you were compelled to trace its history? Do you find it believable that Claire went to Paris to research L’Inconnue’s mask?
In what ways did the themes of Sabine’s and Claire’s stories intersect in the novel, and in what ways are they different?
Sabine and Claire both come from humble backgrounds. Claire was able to move to a big city and do well for herself, while Sabine’s choices were very limited. Still, Sabine was lucky to be in Paris during a time when artists were hungry for models. If Sabine were living in contemporary times, how might her experiences (and opportunities) have been different?
When Claire is first touring Paris, she finds the city disappointing. How does she come to love it? Have you ever had a similar experience?
What do you think of the concept of kintsugi? Are there broken things in your life – physically or metaphorically – that you are inspired to repair with gold lacquer, to make a feature of the breakage?
Several times Claire reflects on the sentence: “Who knows the truth? It is the story that is told.” Are there family stories in your life that you question? How might such tales take on a life of their own?
Had you ever heard of the sculptor Camille Claudel? How do you think her sculpting career might have developed differently had she been a man? In what ways do you think Claudel influenced Sabine?
Why do you think so many people have been enamored with the “Mona Lisa smile”? What do you think it was about L’Inconnue’s smile –or her story that has made people respond so strongly to her mask?
Do you have the sense that Claire’s fear of water is symbolic? What might it mean for her to “learn to swim”?
Toward the end of the novel, Delphine and Pierre-Guillaume bring a painting of Galatea to the studio. In it, the statue is freeing herself from a block of marble. How does this relate to Sabine’s earlier experiences?
Camille Claudel points out to Sabine that a muse chooses her artist, rather than the other way around. In the later part of her life, do you think Sabine chose Jean-Baptiste as the “artist of her choosing,” or herself?
Do you think Armand and Claire will go on to renovate the family château? Why, or why not? Do you think it would be worth it to do so?
What do you suppose happened to the real model for the L’Inconnue death mask?
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Best book I've read in a long time!
Letters from Paris leapfrogs between two separate but connected storylines. Sabine Moreau is a young country girl in the late 1890s who has lost her family to disease and travels to Paris to make a new life for herself. At the suggestion of a friend, she goes to the square in Pigalle to become an artist’s model. It’s there that she meets Maurice Desmarais, a sculptor and painter living off an inheritance. In the present day, Claire Broussard is a Cajun woman who leaves behind her job, friends, and now ex-boyfriend Sean in Chicago to return to Louisiana and care for her dying grandmother. When she gets back to Mammaw’s house Claire’s childhood memories come flooding back, including the memories of the broken mask in the attic. Mammaw makes Claire promise she will go to Paris and discover a great secret. Much to everyone’s surprise, except her Uncle Remy, Claire takes off on an adventure to discover the truth. I really enjoyed the story of L’Inconnue de la Seine created in this book and at several points I could tell the amount of research Blackwell must have done to create it. Some parts of the story feel like they drag on while others feel a little rushed. I love how well developed Claire is and, while I feel like she could have used a bit more development, Sabine. The story itself is quite beautiful and I’m glad I had the chance to read it. I received a copy of this book in exchange for this honest review. For this review and more, please visit my blog at vicariousbookworm.wordpress.com
Ms. Blackwell succeeds again at giving us an authentic feeling of being in Paris and the French countryside. As usual, the writing is superb and the story keeps you turning pages. An excellent read.
Letters from Paris is the latest novel by Juliet Blackwell. Chance “Claire” Broussard lives in Chicago, Illinois. Claire (as she prefers to be called since leaving Louisiana) receives a call from her cousin, Jessica. Her grandmother is not well and wants to see Claire. Instead of taking a leave of absence or a few days off, Claire gives up her job, apartment, and boyfriend and heads home to Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana (she has not been happy in Chicago). Her grandmother, Mammaw is very ill. Mammaw raised Claire after her mother passed away in an accident, and she was removed from her father’s custody. When Claire is checking the attic for a leak, she finds a box. Inside is a beautiful mask that arrived broken. Claire has many memories of the mask. It intrigues her as a child (and still does) and Claire wonders about the history behind it. Her grandmother encourages her to Paris (where the mask came from) and get answers. After her grandmother passes away, Claire is at loose ends. She feels that she does not belong in Louisiana or Chicago. So Claire heads for Paris. Claire starts with the company that made the mask of the woman. The mask is called L’Iconnue de la Seine (The Unknown Woman of the Seine) and was made by Lombardi family at their atelier. There Claire encounters Armand Lombardi and Giselle Bouvay. They need assistance in the atelier (a sales girl who can translate), and Claire wants information on the mask. Join Claire on her journey for answers about the mask of The Unknown Woman of the Seine in Letters from Paris. Letters from Paris has an interesting premise. The book tells us the history of the mask by going back in time to 1897 and Sabine Moreau (the model for the mask). I was looking forward to Letters from Paris, but I have to admit that I was disappointed with the book. I found it to be a slow read and a very long book (it really needed to be edited down). This is a stand-alone book (you do not need to read The Paris Key). The writing is good, but it is lacking (the book is nothing like Juliet Blackwell’s cozy mysteries). The author did a very good job at capturing time and place with her descriptive writing. There is the mystery of the mask, but there is also the romance that develops between Armand and Claire (first they fight and then slowly get to know each other). The answers Claire seeks come at the very end of the book. I give Letters from Paris 3.5 out of 5 stars. It is a lovely story, but it was just not for me. I could not get into this book, and I felt that it dragged. I am a big fan of Juliet Blackwell, and I will definitely be reading her future works. I received a complimentary copy of Letters from Paris in exchange for an honest evaluation. The comments and opinions expressed are strictly my own.
Juliet Blackwell takes her audience on a journey to Paris in her latest novel, Letters from Paris. Claire Broussard survived the accident that took her mother’s life. When she was old enough, she worked hard to leave her small Louisiana home behind in her rearview mirror. Sadly, the benefits of a great job and relationship in Chicago couldn’t keep her from returning to her roots and caring for her ailing grandmother. Little did she know the unearthing of the captivating sculpture her great-grandfather sent home from Paris after World War II would be the catalyst to launch her on a journey once more far away from her Louisiana home. Claire’s grandmother is on her deathbed. She urges Claire to go to Paris and solve the mystery of ‘L’Inconnue’ (The Unknown Woman). Once in Paris, Claire begins her assimilation into an environment quite foreign and out of her comfort zone. The Lombardi family is a legacy of talented sculptors who create death masks. In due time, Claire learns this was the birthplace of the mask her great-grandfather had acquired many decades before. What Claire hadn’t bargained for was a job working at the Lombardi shop as a translator to the English speaking tourists on holiday who frequented the shop. As time unfolds, Claire realizes not only must she solve the mystery of The Unknown Woman, but she must also break down the walls Armand Lombardi has erected. In a unique course of events, Claire learns her journey to Paris would deliver much more than the answers to the mystery of the woman behind L’Inconnue. With a cache of works under her belt, Juliet Blackwell confidently delivers her latest novel. The place is Paris and she does a delightful job of tying the iconic Belle Epoch era together with present day. Her eye toward detail and historical information concerning the process and reason behind the creation of ‘death masks’ is superb. Ms. Blackwell strategically weaves the facts into the storyline and creates a tandem life between Claire Broussard and Sabine (the model of L’Inconnue). The complexities of the lives of both characters complement the story in that the reader can ease into the story and listen to Blackwell’s voice as the tale unfolds. The scenery is romantic and the credibility of situations is spot on. There is a terrific balance of dialogue and ample and descriptive scenery to move the reader along from one conversation to the next. Toward the book’s end, Blackwell throws a terrific and quite unpredictable ‘left hook’ that will delight her audience with a fantastic ‘aha’ moment. Well done Ms. Blackwell! I look forward to your next book. Quill says: Letters from Paris is a wonderful account of perseverance and the quest for answers.
The location of Chicago, a place close to my heart, Louisiana, and then Paris all set up this book to be intriguing. What could these places have in common? The answer is Claire Broussard. She grew up in Louisiana with her drunk father until she is taken in by her grandmother, Mammaw. Her life was not easy; she lost her mother in a horrific accident, and was very restless. Going to college in Chicago she thought she had moved away yet always felt the pull to go home. Finally her Mammaw, on her death bed, makes her promise to go to Paris promising her that there is adventure and secrets to be found. Claire lived an adventurous life. Some of those adventures were not enjoyable for her but they were her life. I was invested in Claire and her happiness. I knew she deserved it but she just couldn’t seem to find the right place for it to be found. I adored her family in Louisiana and how they took her back into their lives when she moved back home to say goodbye to her Mammaw. They also supported her trip to Paris and kept in contact with her during her travels. The letters she sent back to her Uncle Remy were true to what was going on in her Paris life, sometimes telling more than the actions of her life were showing. I felt these letters were showing her real feelings even when Claire was doubting herself. L’Inconnue de la Seine’s, The Unknown Woman of the Seine, story was eerie. A young girl left with no one. She turned to modeling and became a muse to the man who saved her from starving. I felt like she was slave like. She couldn’t leave without his permission, he abused her, and he thought he was treating her well. The fear and compassion I felt for her made her so real to me. I wanted her to escape, get away from the artist, blaze her own path of happiness. Letters from Paris is a sad story with lots of love, family, and so many secrets. Juliet Blackwell did an amazing job making the artist world along with Paris come to life for her readers. Upon finishing the book I just sat back and thought about how wonderful it would be to visit such a beautiful city.
Note there are mentions of suicides in this story. Dollycas’s Thoughts Claire/Chance Broussard goes home to Louisiana to be with her grandmother as she lives out her last days. When she finds a broken piece of artwork in the attic. Her grandmother tells her to go to Paris. There is a story that goes with the artwork she found but she will only hear it in Paris. Soon after her grandmother passes Claire heads to Paris and the trip changes her life forever. the unknown woman www.smh.com.au As soon as Claire found the broken mask I was on the internet so I had the right picture of the mask in my head. But this story was about so much more that a mask. Ms. Blackwell takes us back in time where we meet Sabine, a young woman working as an artist’s model. It was not the life she had imagined. Then we alternate and come to present day and Claire’s experiences in Paris. The author entwines these stories together to give us a wonderful story. One I had a hard time putting down. The characters from past and present feel so alive and real. I found myself immersed both of their stories at times not wanting to switch back and forth, but the author’s way of doing this made each of the stories even more powerful. These characters are unique but in certain ways the same. The were both searching for something and what they found was so unexpected. There is a twist toward the end the totally just floored me. I just didn’t see it coming at all. I enjoyed the description of the setting in both time periods and how over the years many of the places are virtually the same. I was so moved by Blackwell’s book The Paris Key that I ended my review of that book hoping to someday travel there. This book has me wishing even harder. I want to see with my own eyes and feel with my own hands these magnificent places. I enjoyed learning the story of “The Unknown Woman of the Seine” even though yet again there was that suicide element. Learning about death masks was very interesting too. Somehow I feel as my son is nearby as I read these passages and he helps me know I can handle it and to just keep reading. The story overrides my moments of pain. Letters from Paris is a story of discovery and strength, heartwarming and heartbreaking. A story that will resonate with everyone who reads it.