Author: Natasha Lester
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher
Natasha Lester is an Australian author who goes from strength to strength. We have been following her here at Beauty and Lace since A Kiss From Mr Fitzerald was read and loved for book club in 2016.
Historical fiction can be a little touch and go for me but Lester writes a compelling tale that encompasses dual time periods and crosses generations. The Paris Seamstress is an historical novel but some of the characters were actual people, and a select few events actually happened. History was never my strong point so none of this was information I knew until I read it in the Author’s Note.
Estella Bissette is a young woman in Paris, working as a seamstress and dreaming of the day she can work for herself. The Germans are approaching and war can be felt in the distance, its reach affecting citizens of France while still being far enough away that life can go on. Until the war comes a little too close and Estella is pressured to leave France for Manhattan, taking her sewing machine, one suitcase and her dreams.
The Paris Seamstress is an historical fiction with elements of romance but the dual generations offer a perfect opportunity to weave a thread of suspense through the narrative as well. The story unfolds slowly, with each piece revealing itself and causing a time-shift in the narrative.
Lester has told the tale of a courageous and feisty young woman willing to fight for her place in the history books. Estella made it out of France while her country, and her countrywomen, were still recognisable. Returning briefly a year later she discovers a country she hardly recognises.
This story was stunning, it was captivating and the fashion focus was fascinating. The work Estella and her mother did was work they were passionate about but it didn’t bring in big bucks so Estella was working on the side to make extra money and that was where I found it really fascinating, the whole way that Paris couture fashion found itself in production in America. The entire American fashion industry and it’s opinions fascinated me to tell the truth.
The Paris Seamstress is set in the 1940s when life for a woman was very different to what it is now, even in the midst of a war women were extremely restricted in their freedoms and that made it hard for them to carry on while most of the men were off fighting a war. Even women’s fashion was dictated by men.
In 2015 Fabienne Bissette has just taken a new job as Head Curator of Fashion in a Sydney Museum, though her grandmother would love it if she went to work for her. She is spending some time in New York with her Grandmother before returning to Australia and starting her new job.
There are so many elements of this story to love that I’m struggling with where to start. Dual timelines allow the slow reveal of the mystery at it’s heart. The way Lester has told the story meant it wasn’t until late in the book that we discovered how things in the 1940s had played out. Estella’s first showing didn’t go to plan, she was devastated and on the verge of giving up but we know she turned that around somehow as she is still the head of a fashion empire. We aren’t sure how she built it or who she shared it with but we know she got there.
Fashion in the 1940s centred on France, and French fashion was much more focused on couture pieces. Fashion wasn’t for the masses and it wasn’t necessarily functional. Estella Bissette wanted to combine her French fashion roots with a line that is much more functional and can be embraced by all women.
The focus of the story is the characters and their relationships, and Lester has written them beautifully. We explore the characters and the struggles they face with their life dreams in the times they live. The story is set in Paris in the 1940s, as the Germans are set to invade and occupy France; this is a time when French citizens put themselves at risk to do what they could to help. Smuggling people out of the country, protecting injured soldiers and passing information to allies were ways that citizens could help, and risk calling lethal attention to themselves. The way this was explored was entertaining as much as it was heartbreaking. Lester has written a well researched and devastating look at life during the war.
The Paris Seamstress is the story of two strong and talented women, separated by a generation but sharing a strong bond, who had to grow into their faith in their talent to become the women they were meant to be. It is a tale of love in all of its incarnations and a tale of family.
Natasha Lester has captured the timelessness of truly gifted designers and given us a tale of fashion and the building of empires, of war and its ravages, of love and lunacy and strength and resilience. It also tells a beautiful tale of friendship that lasts a lifetime.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves a good story, and who could go past the gorgeous cover. I am enthralled just looking at it.
The Paris Seamstress is book #19 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2018.