The Confectioner's Tale by Laura Madeleine

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The Confectioner's Tale by Laura Madeleine

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A delicious love story linking a researcher in 1980s England with an unlikely couple in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. And there's cake!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: April 2015
Publisher: Black Swan
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1784160722

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Petra is researching the life of late historian, author, critic and greatly missed grandfather JG Stevenson when she should really be writing a dissertation for her doctorate. While looking through his belongings she comes across a photo taken in Paris at the turn of the 20th century and an intriguing note in his handwriting. Petra has never consciously realised that Grandpa Jim (as he was to her) had been to France so the revelation spurs her on against all odds, an unscrupulous competitor and academic pressure. Gradually the search reveals a romance and notorious scandal; the sort of scandal would lead a man to regret it for the rest of his life. Meanwhile in 1909, Guillaume du Frere moves to France from the provinces in order to escape poverty and changes his life completely, although not in the way he'd expected.

British author Laura Madeleine (yes, like the cake) spent her childhood at theatre school preparing for a life on the boards but decided to study at Cambridge instead. From there she became the resident baker at Domestic Sluttery (more cake) and now writes recipes (including cake – see her website) as well as fiction. So, we all realise that Laura would be in a good position to write a novel that includes academia and, yes, cake. But can she?

The answer is a resounding yes. This story in which a patisserie (place for posh cake) vies with young love and an intriguing research project is definitely a great comfort read and lasts longer than cake does (at our house anyway).

We glide between two eras. Back in 1909 we see Paris through the eyes of 19 year old Guillaume (Gui to his mates), formerly of Bordeaux. (It's in third person narrative any of you who dislike first person can come back now!)

Gui's aim is to work on railway construction and maintenance and then perhaps graduate past the manual labour on through the ranks to lofty heights such as ticket inspector. However, in order to earn enough to send home to his widowed mother, the lad has to work long hours at crippling, back breaking work and the living conditions aren't any better either. What he doesn't realise is that his life is about to change after a chance meeting, but not all changes in life are made for the better.

Back in 1988, Petra slowly uncovers pieces of a compulsively intriguing puzzle. The suspense keeps us hanging wonderfully so when Jim arrives in our Parisian story we're ready for him. Although we aren't prepared for the way in which his part in the lives of Gui and the beautiful, unconventional Jeanne (wait till you meet her!) develops. There may be a couple of predictable moments which allow us to anticipate at our leisure, but this isn't one of them.

The problems, they aren't all Gui's. Petra has some family wrangles, not to mention a run in with Hall, a tabloid journalist turned author also researching Jim. Indeed, Hall epitomises all that's bad with the craft, making him the sort of man that Jim would have totally abhorred.

The Belle Époque also jumps from the page just as readily as the 1980s as we learn the standards and rituals of life in a great patisserie's kitchen compared with the abject destitution of the streets outside. Not all are miserable with their lot though. I loved the street urchin Puce – Flea in English. (Think Les Miserable's Gavroche; small, chirpy and enterprising.)

There are definitely some great cameos, Petra's university professors among them. Actually, looking back, it feels as if only Gui, Petra and Jeanne are fully formed. Also as a student, how did she afford the research travel? However neither of these things prevented me enjoying it.

Indeed, well researched, sad, and eventually heart-warming, from the first page to that twist at the end I luxuriated in and devoured the whole confection during a single sitting. Without putting on an ounce I may add! Any chance of some more, please, Laura or would that be greedy?

(Thank you Black Swan for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you'd like to keep the French confection and romance vibe going, we also recommend The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan. If it's the historical angle that attracts you, continuing on the path of elicit romances, try The Earl I Adore by Erin Knightley. You might also enjoy Lessons In French by Hilary Reyl.

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