In 1988, Petra is dismayed to learn her late grandfather’s biographer, Simon Hall, has uncovered a mystery that may harm her grandfather’s reputation, so she is determined to discover the true story before it becomes public knowledge. However, Petra’s investigation is thwarted by the fact Hall seems to be always one step ahead of her and her own father has given him unrestricted access to her grandfather’s papers. Using the few clues she has left, Petra discovers her grandfather had a connection to the Patisserie Clermont, a famous confectionery shop in Paris, and was involved in the scandal that led to its closure.
In 1909, a young man, Guillaume du Frere, leaves his home in Bordeaux to work on the railways in Paris but it is a dirty job that holds no future. Gui crosses paths with Jeanne, the daughter of the man who owns the Patisserie Clermont, and becomes enchanted with not only the girl herself, but the magical world of the confectionery. Contriving to be taken on as an apprentice chef, Gui learns his craft while dreaming of being with Jeanne, but while the girl seems to return his feelings, she is in a class far above his and their love affair is fraught with danger.
The Confectioner’s Tale has two narratives which are marked by two different tenses, Petra in the present and Gui in the past. While both narratives blend well together, Petra’s story in the present suffers in comparison to that of Gui because her exploits are just not as interesting and don’t hold up well against the descriptions of 1910s Paris. Petra is a student at the University of Cambridge who is struggling with her final dissertation after the death of her beloved grandfather and when she learns his biographer has uncovered a dark secret that may tarnish his reputation, she is determined to stop him. Unfortunately, the ultimate revelation is really disappointing, although I’m not going to reveal it, suffice to say it proves to be far too weak for the resulting chaos.
The real strengths of the novel lie in the wonderful descriptions of Paris in la belle époque and the author does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the era which overshadows the rather drab 1980s as a result. I loved the time spent in the patisserie and would’ve been more than happy staying within its walls for the entire novel as you could almost smell and taste the delightful creations. The love affair between Gui and Jeanne is less satisfying as it is quite passionless, however it is very sweet and I did like them both. Jeanne is a woman ahead of her time, trying to escape the restrictions placed on her by society and this is nicely reflected in Petra’s story as she also seems trapped within the expectations of other people.
The whole story is as deliciously light and fluffy as some of the confections made, and while I would’ve liked more focus on the patisserie, it is an enjoyable and easy read. The cover is also beautiful.