Confession time: I’m tired of books and films that deal with World War II and the Holocaust. I tend to actively avoid them.
I know. I know.
I’m terrible, right?
It’s not that I avoid them because I don’t think the period is important. There’s other reasons: 1) I feel that we tend to completely ignore other wars and genocides of the 20th century & 2) often, the period is used cheaply.
Let me explain:. The events of World War II and the Holocaust are extremely important and ought not be forgotten. However, in the US, we tend to be taught about this period in school from elementary school on down while so many other important wars and genocides are never even touched. With so many books and films that center on or use WWII as its setting, we neglect the other wars/genocides and their horrors fade away. If we don’t at times focus on, say, the Yugoslav Wars, the Armenian genocide, the Ottoman Greek genocide, the reign of the Khmer Rouge or the Sierra Leone Civil War, just to name a few, we run the risk of forgetting about them. Think about those conflicts I named. How much do you know about them? Exactly. It’s only been 20 years since the start of the Yugoslav Wars and I am constantly shocked at how little my fellow countrymen know about the wars or the aftermath.
Secondly, I find that often, authors and filmmakers do not have the talent to use WWII/the Holocaust properly. It becomes painfully evident that for some of them, they really could have set the story in damn near any other timeframe in the 20th century, but simply chose that period for its narrative heft and emotional punch. When this is done, it totally cheapens both the story and the events. What happened to real people should not be used simply because you have no idea how to craft conflict and pain.
So, when I selected Natalie Meg Evans’s “The Milliner’s Secret”, I have to admit that I did not have high hopes. I chose the book primarily because I enjoy historical fiction and because I wish to read more female writers. I was expecting that it would be a quick, insubstantial read. I’m pleased to say that I was wrong.
“The Milliner’s Secret” begins in 1937 London, where Cora Masson toils in an unappreciated life. A chance meeting with a dashing German man, Dietrich, leads to a new life in Paris where Cora reinvents herself as a master milliner, Coralie de Lirac.
On the surface, “The Milliner’s Secret” seems like it’s going to be a fairly frothy romance, even as the synopsis promises that we will see Paris “approaching its darkest hour.” The cover and title reinforce that idea. Happily, the novel becomes much more.
While this isn’t my favorite work that I’ve read recently, I know that it will be a re-read for me. As I re-read anything I like, that’s a compliment. There’s many things I enjoyed about “The Milliner’s Secret”.
Coralie is an intensely flawed creature. She has many lovely qualities – she loves wholly and fiercely; she helps as much as she can; she risks her life to help those marked by the Nazis as undesirable. However, Coralie is also hot headed and brash and these qualities -and her inability to tame them – get her into trouble and cause her pain at times. Her temper causes her to do and say things that rain trouble upon her – and her loved ones – heads. At a club, she jumps on stage, singing an English song in her own English accent. Not only does this rile a Corsican gang in the crowd, but showcases her own Englishness and drops the hint to others that she is not all she has said she is. Coralie creates a display in a rival’s shop windows showcasing the French colors, which were illegal to display during the occupation. This causes these rivals to be arrested and gives one in particular an appetite for revenge that could lead to Coralie’s undoing.
Additionally, Coralie trusts far too easily and is shown to not completely understand the precarious situation she and her Jewish/Gypsy friends are in. Instead of tossing everything she has from London. she holds on to a purse which contains information regarding her last day in London, she carelessly discards her friend Ottilia’s identity card (which shows Ottilia to be Jewish), she trusts a fellow milliner to assist with her designs, which leads to a series of seriously catastrophic events. She even admits that while she’s a great milliner, she is not perfect and does need a good staff to work with to do her best work.
I like this. I really, really like this. I find that often, with historical romances, there’s a tendency for the author to either make their protagonist essentially perfect or, if they do imbue the character with negative qualities, to gloss over them and make them fairly insubstantial. Evans avoids this narrative trap and the novel is much richer for it. These flaws make Coralie a little less easy to like and can make you exasperated with her – at times, I felt like yelling at her. This is good! People are flawed and as much as you love someone, you can hate things about them and they can make you so angry. Can you think of the last time you’ve never been upset with someone you loved? That time doesn’t exist! It’s things like this that make written characters easier to understand and to feel for. Coralie feels like a fleshed out character.
It must also be said that the secondary characters are fantastic. Again, it feels that, with historical romance, the focus is placed solely on the couple, to the detriment of everyone around them. While Coralie and Dietrich’s relationship is front and center, the secondary characters around them are fully formed. Ottilia, Una, Teddy, Arkady, Florian, Ramon, Kurt, Amelie, and others- these characters form a family of sorts around around Dietrich and Coralie which makes their disappearances, betrayals and deaths far more effecting than they would be otherwise. Even with Dietrich’s wife, Hiltrud, though she’s not on screen often, we can still feel and understand her pain and actions. The only important character whom I feel is a little roughly drawn is Donal, which is completely understandable as he only appears periodically through out the novel as he and Coralie go through very long periods without having any sort of contact.
The romance between Coralie and Dietrich is not perfect and it’s not simply because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Yes, Coralie is an Englishwoman masquerading as a Belgian who hangs out with Jews and yes, Dietrich is a high ranking official of the German army, but many of the clashes between the two of them concern their personalities, the choices they make and how they choose to handle their personalities and circumstances. This makes for richer, fuller storytelling and so welcomed. Their romance is not flat, but is a breathing thing which makes it all the more damning and damaging when they cannot be together. (Oh yes, they don’t end up together. Which is awesome even though it hurts so much!)
There’s a few criticisms I have, one of which is that the epilogue and end are a bit abrupt for my tastes. I would have preferred more detail, more explanation. Additionally, the prose is not as lyrical as I prefer. I do wish that there had been a different title and cover chosen as I don’t think what we have really gets to the heart of the soulfulness of the novel.
However, these are minor criticisms, to me.
The thing that makes this a three star instead of a four star work for me really is the time period. I know that seems like such a minor thing to most, but for me, I really do think it’s important. WWII is such a done and explored period. This period has been filmed, written about, rehashed and remixed ad nauseam. We have seen this period done up, down and sideways. With a time period that has been pulled apart and put back together in so many ways, so many times, it’s difficult to present a fresh, new view or story. It’s hard to present any new information about this period, particularly when it comes to say, France, England or Germany as we’ve been there so many times. I have a really good understanding of Paris during the war and of Vichy France. I didn’t learn anything new here. I do so love to learn new things.
Still, I really enjoyed “The Milliner’s Secret” and am so glad to have read this. Of course, I have to say that I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.