Author: Beatrice Colin
To Capture What We Cannot Keep is the first Beatrice Colin novel I have read but certainly not the first she has written. It is set against a late 19th Century Parisian background, one that did not evoke images of the romantic city of love I have come to expect.
In the second half of the 1880s Paris is dirty and poverty stricken but it is also a place filled with artists and passion. The Eiffel Tower was big news and about to be started, though not everyone was happy about it.
The Eiffel Tower plays a large role in To Capture What We Cannot Keep and the research into the work must have been extensive. It was the characters that really made the story though.
Jamie and Alice Arrol are young Scots being cared far by their uncle. We first meet them on their Grand Tour when they stop in Paris before heading home, with their chaperone the widowed Mrs Caitriona Wallace.
Jamie is a ladies man who likes to play the field; he is young, naive and privileged. The plan is for him to join the family business but his work ethic isn’t quite up to scratch.
Alice is at a marriageable age so everything is about finding a suitable match, being seen by the right people and socialising in the right crowds. She is still quite young and her naivety has a pure innocence but she also comes across as quite vapid.
Mrs Caitriona Wallace is the focus point of this threesome and much of the novel. She took on a position as chaperone because after being widowed she was left with few options and the decline to destitution isn’t that far. She is still quite young and should be in the prime of her life but circumstances have seen her placed on a shelf with fewer options than the young Miss Alice.
The slow unveiling of Caitriona’s past is quite emotional in that there is a lot more to her story than first assumed and it is quite sad to think that in those times many women only had one shot at love, marriage and a family. A widow has less options, and is certainly expected to take what is offered without thought to her emotions. A second marriage is more a question of security and should be accepted from wherever it is offered; what a horrid thought that is.
Emile Nouguier is one of the engineers who designed the Eiffel Tower, he is already bucking the family trend by pursuing engineering instead of taking over the reins of the family business. He signs the cheques and has the final say but he runs the business from as large a distance as possible, and isn’t looking like settling to marriage and children anytime soon; much to his ailing aged mother’s dismay.
Emile and Caitriona meet in a hot air balloon high above Paris and the air sparks with possibility, until they return to earth and the vast class difference becomes clear. Cait knows that nothing can come of it and is happy to let it go as they will be returning to Scotland shortly.
Jamie was quite taken with the Parisian life and he engineers a way to head back for an apprenticeship with Nouguier working on the Eiffel Tower; placing himself, Alice and Cait back in Paris for a further two years.
To Capture What We Cannot Keep effortlessly, and seamlessly, weaves historical details with fanciful fiction to create a provocative story of passion in a time where appearances of decorum were paramount but secret trysts and passionate affairs ran rampant.
There has always been quite a difference in the expected, and accepted, behaviours of men and women, and there still is. Regardless of how much progress we make I’m not sure that is ever going to be completely wiped out. To Capture What We Cannot Keep illustrates the huge gap between what was acceptable in the late 19th Century. The difficulties to be faced if you were fortunate enough to find love but it happened to be in the wrong place.
To Capture What We Cannot Keep is passionate, entertaining and enlightening. Yes, the book is a novel of fiction but the historical information about the Eiffel Tower is fascinating. The look at Paris in the late 1880s with its very traditional views and the roles of chaperones makes me glad to be a child of the 21st Century.
Thank you to Beatrice Colin and Allen & Unwin for a captivating read. I will be sure to keep an eye out for other works.