The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was blown away by The Paris Seamstress. I read a lot of WWII, female perspective fiction. I enjoy learning about the challenges overcome, feel that reading historical fiction helps honour those that came before and teaches us what to do or not to do in the future. Usually in a WWII book you are prepared to be emotionally wrung out by the end or even in the first 10%. The Paris Seamstress is different. It's not any less impactful but it's a very different story from a different outlook on WWII other than the heart of Europe, the front-line fighting or a concentration camp like we are familiar with.
Our lead gal has been sent to New York, USA in order to be out of the way of the Nazi's invading and about to occupy Paris. Our Parisian lead gal is in her late teens/early twenties through the book. She is about to have to fight hard just to survive on the streets and in the fashion industry of New York. Luckily she has had an upbringing in the Paris fashion scene and can copy fashions (or create her own) that will help her generate income. But first she has to break out and be noticed in New York.
One of the great things about how Natasha Lester has set-up The Paris Seamstress is that it could be any time period, and any woman's story of breaking into any industry. There are specifics of course here in terms of gender, the war creating a lack of supplies, and also being an immigrant but these are the 'things to overcome' that could be easily modified. The core of this story is about fighting to be seen, heard and become an influence on society in some way. Don't be dissuaded if you aren't big into fashion. Clothing is not the heart of the story; overcoming odds and persevering is what this book is really about.
The most endearing part of this story is the characters. Not only is our lead gal genuine, tough but emotional, and hard-working; she is also passionate in so many ways. Be it in her romantic relationships, her work or her desire to be successful or her sorrow over the losses of the war.
There are other wonderful supporting or 'almost main' characters including her business partners: another young gal working as a model and a man she meets on the boat on the way to New York (who cuts the fabrics economically). There is also a charming (and rich) suitor but you'll have to read it to learn about this mysterious man. I can't tell you about most of the other wonderful people we encounter as there are too many spoiler opportunities! Just know all the characters are well fleshed out and endearing in their own ways.
The War Carries On
We do experience (from a far) Pearl Harbour and the introduction of the USA into WWII. Lester also takes us back to the streets of Paris during occupation for a time and all around New York experiencing classes from dirt poor to filthy rich. These varying view points give a well rounded out feel for what WWII was like for those not in the heat of the battle or occupation; but instead living in a bustling city like New York. Even our time in Paris during occupation is a little surreal and a bit jolly at moments (which Lester does on purpose to show a point). Eventually of course the war does taper off and we find out what happens to our leading characters; but don't be deceived the war is still a major factor and is what drives many of our character decisions.
The 'Present' Story
Did I make it sound like the whole book was set in WWII time? Yeah I wish.
My sole complaint about The Paris Seamstress is I could have lost ALL of the present day story with the granddaughter of our fashionista in New York and missed not a lick of her story. There is a mystery throughout the book that she keeps alive; but I really didn't care about it at all to be honest. It felt unnecessary and the 'reveal' was way more relevant to the impact it made on our WWII characters than it was to the present time ones. I just wanted to keep being along for the stories of our characters during WWII. Of course the mystery ties everything together but honestly without it this is still be an amazing five star book. It felt like an editor told Lester something like, these days people like the split perspective in time for historical novels so add that in. I'd have preferred more scenes with our leading lady encountering high society and snobbery in New York, or our model's exploitation concerns than read about the present day granddaughter at all.
If you want to read about a strong female lead in WWII I think you'll really enjoy this. There is a lot about fashion but I'm not a very picky fashion girl and didn't find it boring. Most of the fashion talk is about conserving and using cheaper fabric, creating clothes women want to wear (not have to wear) and other feminist style ideas. There is a romance, and it is bittersweet. I can't say much more than that. For sure this is a novel about staying strong, ensuring you believe in yourself and that life is not fair but we find a way to carry forward and be content (if not truly happy). It is more driven by our characters than the mystery itself. I adored this book and cannot wait to recommend it out to all historical fiction fans and even readers outside the genre boundaries. A good story about people creates a space where the genre becomes irrelevant and is instead just a great character driven read.
Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
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