Apparently, this is the week for Paris, as it is once again on my reading list as the subject of a new novel. And, again, it is based in fact. A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable takes the ultra-intriguing facts of a Parisian apartment that lay undisturbed from before WII until 2010 and layers it in with the fiction of American furniture specialist, April Vogt, who is called upon to appraise the furniture and bric-a-brac.
The timing on this request is perfect because April is in a bit of a muddle about her marriage. Her wildly successful and wealthy financier husband has admitted to a one night stand and April is not certain where this leaves her marriage. She arrives in Paris muddled about her personal life but is instantly swept off her feet by the treasures she finds in the mystery apartment. She is not so enraptured by the inheritor’s lawyer, a jaunty Frenchman who seems to enjoy aggravating her and smoking in the apartment, sometimes at the same time. As she begins to go through the piles of belongings left behind she comes across stacks of ribbon bound paper and, in trying to determine the provenance of any of the pieces, starts to read. At this point the narrative splits between modern day and the late 1800s, when Marthe de Florian was given the apartment by one of her lovers. Soon, the contents of the journal have superseded April’s interest in the antiques and she is drawn into Marthe’s glamorous but unstable life.
The basic premise of an untouched Parisian apartment filled with items from the Belle Époque (late 1800s) is so compelling that it almost writes itself. Add to that the discovery of a painting by Giovanni Boldini, a famous artist of the time, that had never been seen before and was not even known to exist and you have all the ingredients for an unstoppable piece of fiction. Gable goes one step further and integrates Marthe’s life into the findings of the apartment, giving the reader an up-close look at one of the most artistically exciting times in French history. The world was changing so quickly that you could have a stuffed Mickey Mouse doll (one of the first ever made) sitting next to a stuffed ostrich next to some of the finest furniture ever made.
Some of the modern day plot does not have the same aura of mystery and expectation—confused wife gets unexpected reason to journey away from cheating husband and figure out life for herself. Nor is it particularly nuanced in its progress: Confused wife will meet a jaunty Frenchman and begin to experience lust and desire again. What will she decide to do? This, combined with much attention on some of the lewder facets of performance art in the Belle Époque diminishes what is, by itself, an exciting concept. Maybe I’m just a furniture and history geek but descriptions of an ormolu or a writing desk made by Marie Antoinette’s cabinetmaker are more interesting than a performer whose sole talent is farting.
Gable covers a lot of terrain in A Paris Apartment and there is little doubt of the research she must have done to write not only of the apartment’s contents but of Marthe’s life. These make the novel fascinating but the contemporary, personal journey of April is less so. For everyone experiencing the lovely beginnings of spring this would be a good, light read for an afternoon in the park.