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In dire need of escapism…

October 22, 2022 26 comments

I don’t know how it is for you, but every time I switch on the radio, it’s all gloom and doom. Add to the mix a string of exhausting days at work and I’m in the right mood for book escapism.

I tried to read A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable (2014), based on an extraordinary but true story.

In 2010, Marc Ottari, a Parisian art expert was appointed to appraise the content of an apartment. Set in the heart of Paris, it had been unopened for 70 years. They discovered a portrait by the Belle Epoque portraitist Giovanni Boldini along with a collection of expensive furniture and decorations. It was the apartment of Marthe de Florian (1864-1939), a famous demi-mondaine of the Third Republic.

The novel features April Vogt, an American art expert sent to Paris to help out her colleagues from the French office in charge of registering all the furniture and decorations of the above-mentioned apartment. She gets interested in Marthe and investigates further.

The blurb had me salivating. The execution? Not so much. I thought that April was an irritating character with her marital angst and her swooning for French men. Gable dabbles a book full of all the Parisian clichés an American reader might expect. It didn’t warm me to April as a character or to the author.

April finds Marthe de Florian’s diary and the chapters alternate between April in Paris and Marthe’s voice coming from her journal. A well-known but efficient plot device. The problem is that Marthe doesn’t speak like a 19th century woman, in my opinion. That’s the form. And then, there’s the substance.

CREDIT “AFP/MARC OTTAVI”

According to her Wikipedia page –probably based upon Gable’s novel— Marthe de Florian was involved with several French politicians of the Third Republic and with Robert de Montesquiou.

In the afterword by Marc Ottavi, the actual art expert who went into the apartment mentions that they found letters by prominent politicians of the Third Republic but nothing by Robert de Montesquiou.

To be honest, I thought that her affair with Montesquiou was strange. I know of him because he was a friend and mentor of Proust’s and allegedly the inspiration for the Baron de Charlus.

I don’t think that Marthe de Florian and her politicians ran into the same circles as Montesquiou, even if Boldini painted him too. And both Montesquiou and his doppelganger Charlus were gay.

Monstesquiou’s Wikipedia page confirms my impression. He ran into aristocratic social circles (and not Republican ones like Marthe de Florian) and his only love interest mentioned is a man, Gabriel Yturri. They met in 1885 and were together until Yturri’s death in 1905. They are buried in the same grave.

I’ve looked into other articles about Marthe de Florian and while they mention the politicians, they never hint at any relationship with Robert de Montesquiou. One of those is here.

So, a torrid affair between Montesquiou and Marthe de Florian? I don’t buy it. I’d love to hear about Michelle Gable’s source since none of them are listed in her book.

In the end, between April’s weak voice, Marthe’s too modern one, her weird hatred for Jeanne Hugo and the historical inconsistencies, I stopped reading. I felt I was cheated of a good story because the discovery of Marthe de Florian’s apartment is a bloody perfect pitch for a novel.

I was still in dire need of escapism when I stumbled upon Emi’s message on Twitter (@dappled_days) about The Lark by E. Nesbit. She wanted other book recommendations like this one and I figured it would help me out too. Other book lovers responded with recommendations and I listed them for future reference.

  • The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
  • The Lark by E. Nesbit
  • Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession
  • Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  • Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam
  • O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker
  • Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson
  • Susan Settles down by Molly Clavering
  • Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby
  • Much Dithering by Dorothy Lambert
  • The Marble Staircase by Elizabeth Fair
  • Shepherdess of Sheep by Noel Streatfeild
  • Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp
  • High Rising by Angela Thirkell
  • The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
  • Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
  • The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  • The Haunted bookshop by Christopher Morley
  • A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse
  • The Love Letter by Cathleen Schine
  • The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange
  • The Ladies of Lyndon by Margaret Kennedy Days
  • Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple
  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff
  • At Sea by Laurie Graham
  • Patricia Brent, Spinster by H.G. Jenkins
  • Miss Mole by E.H. Young
  • Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
  • Penny Plain by O. Douglas
  • Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom
  • The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy
  • Miss MacKenzie by Anthony Trollope
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence
  • A Humble Enterprise by Ada Cambridge
  • The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge

More suggestions published by Dean Street Press.

British Library Crime Classics supplies another kind of escapism and that’s the one I turned to when I read The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie for the upcoming #1929Club.

If you have information about Marthe de Florian, please let me know, I’m curious. Other recommendations for book escapism are welcome.

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