From his arrival in Paris straight from Edinburgh by mail coach, Rebecca Stott unfolds the adventures of idealistic Daniel Connor and his affair with Lucienne Bernard, a beautiful but enigmatic coral thief. It is July 1815, and Napoleon is already a captive. While the Allies quarrel about what to do with him, Paris is reveling in the tangled dealings of commerce and trade. Daniel - destined to be an assistant to the illustrious Georges Cuvier, professor of comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes - wants more than anything to be a part of what is happening.
While Napoleon’s fate seems strangely and superstitiously bound to Daniel’s, the young man’s future changes when he meets darkly beautiful Lucienne with her black eyes and her olive skin.
Her head obscured by a black cloak, Lucienne seems to know all about Daniel, even as she confesses to be a student of Lamark, the famed transformist. But when Lucienne steals Daniel’s travel bag, a small case containing his specimens and the manuscript entrusted to him, Daniel can barely understand the adventure that is about to be thrust upon him.
Reeling from being seduced into a false sense of security by a beautiful woman, Daniel falls under the wing of William “Fin” Robertson from the Western Isles.
He takes Daniel on a personal tour of Paris and tries to get him to forget about the stolen items. When Fin tells Daniel to report the crime to the infamous Henri Jagot,
the poacher-turned-gamekeeper who runs the Bureau de la Surete, Jagot tells him that Lucienne is in fact “a savant” who actually works with a man they call Davide Silveira.
Fate descends on Daniel. The spell is cast when one afternoon at the Louvre, he
again meets his thief dressed in pale blue satin. While Daniel is almost angry beyond words, Lucienne implores him, “You will have to trust me. I need something from you, something that you can only get for me.” As the bells of Notre Dame strike out across the great city, Lucienne promises to bring his things back only if he will do something for her.
An unaccountable instinct makes Daniel trust her, even as he becomes tied to this woman by “an invisible thread” and the feeling that he is complicit in something he does not understand. Meanwhile, reckless Lucienne
- on the run from Jagot - feverishly devotes herself to her true mission - the collection of her spiral shells, the intricate branchings of red corals, and the fanned shapes of sponges
- as she beguiles Daniel with her tumultuous past.
From the outset, Stott makes it clear that gorgeous Lucienne is tapping Daniel to serve as a sort of sidekick, that Daniel
(like so many earnest and innocent young men) will fall in love, that he will compromise his innate sense of morality in order to please his new muse, that he’ll battle with his knowledge of how a child of slaughtered aristocrats can become a “philosopher-thief” among the loops and triangles and circles of life. Daniel can’t quite reconcile the path that eventually leads him into the muddy, shadowy labyrinths of underground Paris with
its heretics and thieves. There he gets caught up Lucienne and Davide Silveira’s plans to steal the precious Satar diamond from the Jardin des Plantes.
Layering Daniel and Lucienne’s love story with rich historical background, Stott poignantly interprets Napoleon’s final days when the British eventually banish him to the island of St. Helena. The most moving struggle in the novel is Daniel’s, his adventures bought vividly to life in a story filled with drama, passion, art, and a fair amount of scientific discovery, the author's meticulous research almost transcending time.