I really enjoyed this book but can’t help feeling the title did it no favours. A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore is a story of hidden secrets, wartime Paris, resistance, collaboration, bravery and music. Because of the title I was expecting something more cosy and romantic; although there is a romantic strand to the story, this book is worth reading for so much more.
The week in Paris in question happens in 1956 when teenager Fay goes on a school trip to Paris. Two significant things happen to her there. She meets a fanciable boy, Adam, and has a strange fainting episode triggered by the ringing of the bells at Notre Dame. Back home, she questions her mother Kitty who denies that Fay has ever been to Paris. But Fay cannot shake off the feelings of familiarity.
In 1961 Fay, now a professional violinist, has the chance to go to Paris for a series of performances. However her mother, always emotionally vulnerable, has taken an accidental overdose and is in St Edda’s Hospital. Before she leaves for Paris, Fay visits her mother who tells her to look at the bottom of a locked trunk at home. In it, Fay finds a small canvas rucksack. Attached to it is a label. On one side is written ‘Fay Knox, Southampton’, on the reverse, ‘Convent Ste-Cécile, Paris.’
‘She sat staring at the label for some time, while the faintest glimmer of a memory rose in her mind. Sunshine falling on flagstones, the blue robes of a statuette, and… but no, it was gone. It was as though a door had opened, just a chink, in her mind, before it shut again.’
The story is told in two strands, World War Two and afterwards, from the viewpoints of Kitty and Fay. Gradually the mysteries are unveiled. Fay has the unsettling feeling that her mother is keeping secrets, while Kitty knows she must some day explain everything to her daughter. For a long time, the reader keeps guessing.
In Paris, Fay sets off to find the convent mentioned on the label. There she slowly unravels the truth. How, despite denying to Fay that she has ever been to France, Kitty went to Paris in 1937 to study piano at the Conservatoire. What follows is an unveiling of a secret life during the Second World War, a time when Fay was a toddler, a time her mother told her they lived in a pretty cottage in Richmond. The real story of Kitty’s pre-war life in Paris, her meeting and love affair with Fay’s father Eugene, and what happened next, is fascinating. Again, Fay experiences feelings of déjà vu but this time she is old enough to seek the answers. She never imagined the truth she discovers.
I found myself picking up the book at every opportunity, just to read another couple of pages. It is a fascinating study of wartime secrets being kept from the next generation, not in an attempt to deny but as a way of pushing away the pain, grief and shame of what happened in an occupied city.
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