Hachette, Australia, 2021
Cover design by Christabelle Designs with photograph courtesy Idda van Munster – Aida Dapo Muharemovic
This book brings together a number of the author’s passions – France, World War 11 history, women of courage, fashion and art. It is set in Occupation Paris in the historical time frame and the Riviera, Australia and New York in 2015 for the contemporary.
The historical story tells of the work of the women who, at great personal danger, catalogued the art thieved from Jewish families and the Louvre by the Nazis. It was their hope that keeping a record of works taken to add to Hitler and Göring’s personal art collections would one day enable them to be returned to their rightful owners.
The 1940s story is linked to the modern by a painting, a house and generations of love and loss in the character of Remy.
The person who inspired this novel was Rose Valland, but scant personal information about her and other factors meant that she has not become the main heroine of The Riviera House. This role falls to the fictitious Eliane, through whose family life and work both at the museum and in her family bistro we gain a clear view of many aspects of Occupation Paris.
As Liberation approaches things become more frenzied both for the Parisian residents and for the Nazi occupation forces. Mistrust and betrayal are major drivers in this historical story, reflecting the tenuous nature of existence in times when few can be relied upon to hold the moral line – often a life and death decision.
Mirroring this in the contemporary tale, our emotionally fragile heroine Remy is suffering from intense grief at the loss of her husband and only child in a car accident. She retreats to the house, at playground of the rich and famous St Jean Cap-Ferrat on the Riviera, which she has inherited along with a mysterious painting of unknown provenance. She’s orphaned and her own story remains a mystery almost until the denouement.
Whilst there she meets the neighbouring holiday-makers, the Henry-Jones family, including the dashing but sorrowful Adam. A love story enfolds but it is also dogged with mistrust and self-doubt, guilt and pain.
Natasha Lester has proved herself a mistress of this genre, marrying solid research with a deft hand at story weaving. She creates a vivid picture of Paris in the 1940s, of the dire living conditions and unmakeable choices so many had to face.
The froth of the modern day Riviera dispels some of the darkness for the reader, but the torrid love story, the emotions of grief and sadness laid bare keep us somewhat inside the atmospherics of the earlier time.
The linking story threads are cleverly unravelled, holding our attention throughout this quite weighty tome – weighty in content and size. The author demands that we pay attention and homage to the courageous women of the past and that we do not ever entirely take our eyes away from them even in the sunshine doused landscape of the present day.
References to the classic fashion photography of Louise Dahl-Wolfe form another tie for the war era and the modern day as Remy and Adam draw on her style for their Look-book shoot.
World War 11 in Europe and its aftermath have already provided many stories in fiction but there are many more yet untold. Writers like Natasha Lester have refocused our attention from the exploits of soldiers, military chiefs and campaigns to the lesser lauded players – many of them women – without whose courage and strength so much would have gone undone or been lost forever.
What remains for me in this novel, both from its present and past tales, is the art – that people risked all for the rescue of artworks is a powerful reminder of the centrality of all Arts to our human-ness. All who have glimpsed the Mona Lisa, a Van Gogh or a Picasso across a crowded gallery will understand the importance of this, that frisson of emotion such works evoke, that promise of something magnificent and bigger than the daily vicissitudes of individuals.
And for this we thank resistance fighters like Rose Valland, who worked for the voiceless paintings and the individuals and institutions who lost them, and we thank authors like Natasha Lester for bringing us their stories.
Thank you to Hachette for my review copy and Natasha Lester for speaking with me on Living Arts Canberra. Always such a privilege and pleasure.