While I wouldn’t exactly categorize Gable’s novel as romance, certainly April Vogt’s brush with passion signifies at least a change in her love life and her marriage to husband Troy, a hotshot hedge fund manager who tells her to go to Paris because she already has the fortuitous plane ticket. Although handsome Troy may be a cad and life with him bright and sunny, at least the City of Lights will save April from yet another dreary evening “in a roomful of capitalist drones.”
April, an antique furniture specialist, is seeking something more. She wants, like any thirty-something, a little culture, a little more stability and hopefully some direction. She’s a bit of a wandering spirit with little to no sense of who she is. All this changes when April becomes enamored with an apartment in the Ninth Arrondissment on the Right Bank, near the Folies Bergere and the Pigalle red-light district. Here a colorful Paris exists, an exotic world of writers and artists.
The seven-roomed apartment, covered in dust and neglect, was clearly inhabited by someone who was a rich and flashy hoarder. Madame Lisette Quatremer sealed the apartment in 1940, abandoning all her things. Now Luke, Madame Quatremer’s shifty solicitor, wants to auction all of the contents—most notably a fabulous Boldini portrait of well-known demimondaine Marthe de Florian. Given such an impressive apartment for a courtesan, Marthe proves to be singular breed, her occupation making perfect sense to April given the pieces in the apartment.
As sexy, lanky Luke with his floppy black hair guides April into the life of pleasure that Paris has to offer, a world that opens before her like an oyster producing the most opalescent pearl, her heart skips a beat when she discovers Marthe’s yellowed diary connecting the painting’s provenance to the handsome and celebrated artist intent on recreating Marthe’s likeness. The fate of the painting is a perfect deus ex machina, bringing out the cultural issues that arise as Marthe tries to claw her way up the social strata of La Belle Époque Paris.
Reminiscent of Dianne Johnson’s Le Divorce but with snappier dialogue, Gable’s Paris is presented to the reader like a fine jewel on a silver tray. April begins to develop her own opinions about Marthe while questioning her fracturing marriage to Troy. She also courts earthy Luke, this exotic Frenchmen who is adamant that he is not to “sexually badgering” her. Troy seems anxious for April to return, which only makes April’s stomach knot further as she begins to delve deeper into Marthe’s life.
Gable tunnels us back to 1892 where Marthe, unable to afford her apartment, finds work as a barmaid at the Folies Bergere. Buoyed by visions of performing as a beautiful cancan dancer, this convent girl is the first to admit there are worse ways to earn money. Marthe’s history, however, ends up rich, this woman who once consorted with Proust, Montesquieu and even the Hugo family.
As Marthe’s story unfolds, a story “locked up and stashed away for over seventy years,” Gable entwines her series of lovers in a dispute over the great Boldini painting. The fate of the painting hinges on pragmatic April, who views the sale of the painting and the other objects in the Paris apartment in a clear-eyed, practical way. In a tale of two women, it is ultimately April who understands how it was so easy for Marthe to flit from patron to patron, to fall so easily into long-term flirtations or beds or financial arrangements. Marthe’s changeable character, meanwhile, is proper and flirtatious, embodying the expression of a woman who gets to try again and again, sacrificing her health and her reputation until she gets what she wants.
Not content with her themes of seduction, Gable’s cast includes Marthe’s eclectic boyfriends and April’s well-meaning family in San Diego who crave a measure of peace when faced with an unexpected tragedy. The unresolved issues between April and Troy are at the heart of the matter, perhaps closer to the truth even after seven years of a difficult, demanding marriage.