To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin

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To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: JY Saville
Reviewed by JY Saville
Summary: This is a gripping tale of the struggle for love amid the glamour and squalor of 1880s Paris. With some beautiful imagery and well-drawn characters it's definitely worth a read if you like a strong historical romance.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: February 2017
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1760291723

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Paris, February 1887, and work on the foundations of Eiffel's daring tower is about to begin. Engineer Emile Nouguier, taking photographs of the site from a tethered hot air balloon for tourists nearby, chances to meet a young widow from Glasgow named Caitriona Wallace, and his own foundations start to shift. Over the next two years as the tower slowly rises in the Champ de Mars, what began as an impossible dream becomes solid reality – Cait and Emile's love for each other. In a world where more than bustles and corsets hem her in, will Cait be able to break free of her oppressive future, and given their different social strata, can Emile re-shape his?

Although the central pillar of the novel was the burgeoning relationship between Emile and Cait, there were enough other strands to the story for this to feel like a full world with a lot going on in it. I have to admit I assumed from the synopsis that Emile as an engineer would be of a lower class than the undoubtedly wealthy Scottish widow who was in Paris enjoying a tourist attraction, hence the problem of class boundaries. However, within the first couple of pages it is made clear that Cait is employed as a travelling companion or chaperone and is therefore a servant, albeit one who is highly thought of and well educated. The distinctions between old money and new, the aristocracy (even in a republic) and self-made men, are clearly highlighted, as are the double standards that allow respectable men to keep mistresses while respectable women find it hard to converse with a man.

The art, architecture and engineering themes were well used, I thought, suggesting a world of change, on the cusp of modernity. Emile's interest in Impressionist paintings, and his work on the tower, both scorned and railed against by the traditionalists of the city, underscore his uncertainty about the tradition embodied in his own family and the way his mother has planned out his life. It's all about potential and possibility.

As with many a historical novel, some of the main characters in To Capture What We Cannot Keep were real people. Emile Nouguier himself really was one of the chief engineers on the Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel appears in the novel as both his friend and employer, and William Arrol, Cait's employer, was in real life as well-known a Scottish engineer as his character suggests. The author had clearly done her research, and I enjoyed the small engineering details which were thrown in from time to time. There was the odd moment where a touch of historical or background information was thrust forward a little too obtrusively, but on the whole it was subtly done. The novel has a strong sense of place as well, in Paris.

Because of the interplay of love and duty, the modern and the traditional, this was a remarkably tense book and I raced through it. There was a sense of inevitability at times, when I could see a character hurtling towards a metaphorical cliff and wanted to shout and warn them, but that drew me in of course, to see what became of the situation.

To Capture What We Cannot Keep put me in mind a little of Tracy Chevalier's Falling Angels, but The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley might also be a good next move. It has fantasy elements, but is set in the 1880s with a good grounding in historical fact, on the cusp of modernity, and has the role and restrictions of women as a key theme. You might also enjoy The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.

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