1940. Parisian seamstress Estella Bissette is forced to flee France as the Germans advance. She is bound for Manhattan with a few francs, one suitcase, her sewing machine, and a dream: to have her own atelier.
2015. Australian curator Fabienne Bissette journeys to the annual Met Gala for an exhibition of her beloved grandmother’s work – one of the world’s leading designers of ready-to-wear. But as Fabienne learns more about her grandmother’s past, she uncovers a story of tragedy, heartbreak and secrets – and the sacrifices made for love.
The Paris Seamstress is a sweeping tale narrated by two protagonists, Estella, a young girl who flees Paris during the war, and her granddaughter, Fabienne, who has to live up to her grandmother’s daunting reputation. While the story has many good elements, it relies far too much on coincidence requiring a suspension of disbelief which grates increasingly. On the voyage to New York, Estella meets Sam, a young American who is a trained cutter in the clothing industry, and they soon become firm friends. Sam will play a significant part in Estella’s future as she tries to start her own design company but we are kept guessing as to whether their friendship becomes more serious as it is obvious Sam is in love with her.
Estella’s story takes a melodramatic turn when she goes to a party and is confused when people react like they’ve already met her. She’s even more confused when Alex, a mysterious man she met in Paris, seems to thinks she is another woman entirely. When Estella agrees to meet Alex again, she is astounded when a young woman who looks like her makes an appearance and Alex tells her he is convinced they are twins.
The story about Lena and Estella’s birth is a convoluted one which gets rather confusing as it hearkens back to the birth of Estella’s mother, Jeanne, who we are told was the illegitimate daughter of actor John Barrymore and Evelyn Nesbit. The real Barrymore fell in love with Evelyn when he was young but he was not considered a suitable husband due to his reputation and Evelyn’s parents separated them by sending her to boarding school. While at school, Evelyn underwent some kind of emergency medical procedure which fuelled speculation she had either given birth or had an abortion which she denied.
Evelyn would then go on to become the central figure in a bizarre love triangle between New York socialite Stanford White and the mentally unstable millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw. Thaw hated White with a passion as he believed the other man was deliberately working against him and it is believed he pursued Evelyn to get back at White. Evelyn agreed to marry Thaw in April 1905, however he turned out to be a possessive man who kept his new wife a virtual prisoner. Thaw fatally shot White in June 1906, professing he had done so because White had ruined Evelyn’s reputation and it was his duty as her husband to defend her. During the trial, Evelyn was forced to confess intimate details of her relationship with White, revealing to the world she had been the victim of what we would now call date rape. Thaw was found not guilty, on the grounds of insanity, and was sentenced to life in a hospital for the criminally insane. However, he later escaped and was allowed his freedom when he was determined to have regained his sanity.
While Lester has obviously run with the belief Evelyn bore Barrymore’s child, the only character from this sordid tale who is present in the book is Harry Kendall Thaw who is an abusive figure in Lena’s life. There’s enough material here for Lester to have based the entire book on these events but it is not the true focus and it sits very uncomfortably in the main storyline. Estella and Lena do eventually discover the truth about their separation, however fate intervenes once more with disastrous results. Estella ends up taking her secrets to the grave but it all seems rather unnecessary as there is no one left to protect.
Fabienne has to put the pieces of the puzzle together and her chapters are interwoven with Estella’s so both learn the truth roughly at the same point, although much of it is obvious. While Fabienne is uncovering Estella’s past she travels to Paris where she meets Will, a designer from Tiffany, who is there with his terminally ill sister. Part of Fabienne’s journey is also to find herself but her time with Will and Melissa is just a distraction and it starts to grate after awhile.
There are just too many storylines competing with each other in The Paris Seamstress, however the promising ones fizzle out rather quickly and it turns out to be a frustrating read.