Imagine this–your kid is about to graduate and go off to “the real world,” your favorite great-aunt-in-law dies, your spouse dies, and some historian writes you (it’s present day, and as much as I love snail mail, it’s not that common, let’s be honest) about putting on an exhibition about your great-aunt. Well that’s exactly the spot we meet Evie Black in Kirsty Manning‘s The French Gift. That’s a lot to handle, right? Right, and this book is a lot too, so let’s dive in!
(As we approach the diving board, let me just take a moment to point you in the direction of my vlog too)
Allow me a moment to set the scene:
It’s simultaneously 1940 and present day… It’s a party in France for Bastille Day and a maid, Margot Bisset, is about to see something that will haunt her the rest of her life. But her story doesn’t end there, it’s a WWII historical fiction, after all, so there will be Nazis, terror, survival… Evie Black, meanwhile, is faced with picking up the pieces of her grieving family while also trying to organize an event to honor it. Well, one person: her great-aunt-in-law and famed crime novelist Josephine Murat. But along the way, she uncovers a HUGE secret.
To be honest, I’m always a mix of giddy and nervous with split-time books. How will the author pull it off? Will I want more of past-story or more of present-story? Will present-story find out the truth about past-story??? Does that even matter??? I always have so many questions, but honestly, I think Manning handled this very well. I also thing she fielded the split focalization really expertly too. While the entire story is in the third person, we focus on Evie, Josephine, and Margot individually throughout the book. Generally, I’d say there are 1-3 chapters for a character at a time and it usually goes back and forth between the 1940 and the present storylines.
In what I call “past-story,” (perhaps my favorite?) there are a few times where Manning goes directly between Josephine and Margot, which is so interesting because, while those characters are not the narrators, their perspectives are just so unique. We sort of see a few of the same events from their own perspectives, which is simply delightful and incredibly engaging.
In present-story, eh, it’s definitely enjoyable–I loved seeing Evie and the charming Clement (the historian) uncover the secrets…slowly. I also really enjoyed their slow burn. But, while interesting, it didn’t quite hold my attention nearly as well as past-story did. There was just so much less action–I’m a little surprised I’m saying that, I wouldn’t typically describe myself as desiring “action” in books–that it constantly had me wondering what would happen next. Perhaps the biggest draw to present-story is the end, when you’re wondering if they’re going to reveal the plot twist to the people at the exhibition.
I really don’t want to give too much away because it was such an interesting book–inspired partially by true events and a memoir of Agnes Humbert–but I want to talk about the plot twist really quick. Present-story Josephine was somewhat of a hermit, and this exhibition was intended to not just celebrate her legacy as an author, but help people get to know the “real her,” to a degree. So when we find out from past-story that Josephine was flamboyant and confident…well, it seems like a bit of a non-sequitur. Of course, war changes people, there’s ample evidence and anecdotes to support that. But to go from being arrested for having Vive de Gaulle franc notes in your garter to a stowed-away crime novelist seems quite the change for this particular character… And then something happens in the rayon factory and it. all. makes. sense.
I didn’t see it coming! I was so enthralled in the book, perhaps I missed the clues or perhaps Manning was just superb at misdirection. Regardless, it was quite the enjoyable surprise and what I think makes this book incredibly enjoyable. I definitely recommend The French Gift, especially for those who like historical fiction and mysteries…it’s not so much a “who done it,” but it is definitely a “who is she, really??”
Some triggers though–there is murder, there is torture, the Nazis didn’t mess around, and my heart BROKE reading about Margot and Josephine’s emotional and physical pain. There are, on a lighter note, some mentions of sex (the “they were tangled in sheets” type, nothing graphic) as well. Personally, I don’t see that these triggers are enough to deter readers, but I do recognize that it might be difficult for some.
That’s all I’ve got for now! Look out for next week’s posts on Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen.