American academic Trevor Stratton discovers a box full of artifacts from World War I as he settles into his new office in Paris. The pictures, letters, and objects in the box relate to the life of Louise Brunet, a feisty, charming Frenchwoman who lived through both World Wars. As Trevor examines and documents the relics the box offers up, he begins to imagine the story of Louise Brunet's life: her love for a cousin who died in the war, her marriage to a man who works for her father, and her attraction to a neighbor in her building at 13 rue Thérèse. The more time he spends with the objects though, the truer his imaginings of Louise's life become, and the more he notices another alluring Frenchwoman: Josianne, his clerk, who planted the box in his office in the first place, and with whom he finds he is falling in love.
Originally published in 2011, this story has a somewhat similar feel to Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children (published in 2013). It incorporates historical photos and photos of actual objects woven around a fictional story to give the reader an entertaining and almost interactive experience.
It opens in modern times, later incorporating a tale of historical fiction. A Frenchwoman by the name of Josianne has a box of mysterious artifacts and bits of ephemera which, over the course of years, she invites numerous academics from around the world to investigate to unravel the mystery. The candidates are always male and typically college professors. Strangely, any man that comes to take on the project ends up developing -- and usually succumbing to -- a serious, feverish, flu-like illness.
While searching for yet another successor, Josianne discovers American professor Trevor Stratton. Stratton agrees to move to Paris to start research, though he doesn't seem entirely sure what his end goal is meant to be. It is revealed that the items in the box belonged to one Louise Brunet, a woman who lived in Josianne's building and also lived through both World Wars. The artifacts in the box slowly lay out a story for the reader of who Louise might have been -- her dreams and hopes -- and how life might have changed the course of her life away from what she might have originally hoped for. In this way, the story has a universal appeal that leads the reader into pondering how anyone ends up where they are in life, what choices or unavoidable situations lead us away from our childhood dreams. Louise's box of bits of her life has Trevor imagining that she settled into married life with a solid, "sure bet" kind of guy -- stable, but maybe not as passionate as a woman dreams of in a mate. We see Louise, though she still loves her husband, become bored with married domesticity, finding herself overcome with sexual fantasies about another man who lives in her building. She tries to battle these thoughts with showing more attention to her husband but I had to laugh when, in a moment of her offering herself to him, Louise's husband replies with "You're very kind but not tonight, I'm really very tired." You're Very Kind??!! WOW.
What would happen if she were to introduce stories of sweeping romance into a marriage that had none? They had come together truly as man and wife, and thoroughly. Still, their union was one made in a spirit of weariness; a wish for peace and quiet was what drove them toward each other. He worked for her father. He was a good man. She wanted a good man, something steady and safe, something unlike the blazes of the just-ended war.
For all that, such blazes sometimes flare in her heart and find no outlet. Henri looks back into Louise's eyes and smiles gently. He lays his hand on top of hers, which is resting on the coverlet, and says, 'You know, foolishness like that can feel lovely for awhile, but it doesn't last. It is false.' She leans in and kisses him, kisses his lax and comforting lips. She does love him. Yet she is riddled with flaming foolishness -- and she knows such things don't last, but she cannot accept that such things are false, just because they are fleeting.
While the story was generally entertaining, it had its flaws (at least for me). I didn't enjoy how the POV kept switching around. At first it was fun to have the book in 2nd person, letting the reader BE Trevor while he did his research. But then it would go back and forth from that to 1st person to drifting into 3rd person, then back to 1st. UGH! Just pick one and I'll roll with it! But one!
Some of the depictions of the World War 1 battlefields were more gruesome that I would expect in a book of this kind but we are talking about war, so that I could go along with. I was also surprised at how dark and twisted some of the passages got -- I was just under the impression this would be a lighter, fluffier, Parisian themed read.(show spoiler)
After awhile, some of the story started to get a little repetitive and my interest waned some, but then the plot picked up again the last 200 pages or so.
I thought it was pretty cool that the author, in her afterword, tells of how the story was inspired by a box of items she actually did receive after the death of an elderly acquaintance. She says her imagination went wild trying to decipher the items in the box, resulting in this book.