Reviewed by Gail M. Murray
It is easy to see why Moonlight over Paris makes the list of Top Ten Canadian Fiction and Best Selling Original Fiction (Toronto Star 2016). Robson’s fluid writing style and attention to detail cleverly draws the reader into 1920’s Jazz Age Paris. This reader is impressed with Robson’s extensive glossary, and all-encompassing bibliography of the period. I recommend reading her short essay on Paris and the Lost Generation at the back, before beginning her absorbing novel.
Robson is both historian and gifted novelist. Gertrude Stein coined the term – The Lost Generation – thousands of expatriate writers, musicians and artists drawn to Paris after WW1. Here they could live well in a society free of puritanical conventions. Our heroine, Helena, is both surprised and delighted to be free of British class structure and the constraints placed upon her as a member of an aristocratic family. Here she can escape the humiliation of a broken engagement and be accepted on her own terms.
We’ve met Helena briefly in Somewhere in France as the shy debutante engaged to Edward, Lord Cumberland. Here we come to know her and watch her blossom.
Helena is fortunate to have wealthy, open-minded Aunt Agnes introduce her to salon life. Through her friendship with Sarah and Gerard Murphy (whom she meets in Antibes with her aunt) and Sam Howard, correspondent with Chicago Tribune, Helena becomes our pathway to The Lost Generation. The Murphys' wealthy yet charming American expatriates, are at the centre of the literary scene and friends with Picasso, the Hemingway’s and the Fitzgerald’s. Gerard is a celebrated cubist painter in his own right and along with Etienne they encourage and nurture Helena’s talent.
Along with Sam and Helena, we visit the salon of Gertrude Stein where she encounters Hadley Hemingway and marvels at the paintings of Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Later when Helena stops by Sylvia Beach’s celebrated English language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, she engages a young Ernest Hemingway in casual conversation. Hobson makes all her characters – fictional and historical - plausible.
Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s comedic film, Midnight in Paris, Robson’s story is more intriguing and pure. Robson gains our sympathy for Helena immediately with her artistic spirit and desire to break free of controlling parents and their society. Her affinity for painting came early and sustained her throughout the bleak war years.
“She could still remember, if vaguely, how she had loved to make sketches of her toys and pets when she was very little.” Not unlike Beatrix Potter.
Helena and the reader feel at home at art school and Helena’s Montparnasse studio amid the charcoal and oils and natural dialogue among her student friends Mathilde and talented, avant-garde Etienne. As she finds her footing as an artist, she grows in depth and confidence.
Sam Howard, the American journalist, proves a contrast and sounding board to the naïve Helena newly arrived in France.
“She’d never had a male friend before…..felt she could speak with candor and share her thoughts and feelings in a meaningful way…..yet Mr. Howard…..had asked her questions and even more surprisingly had actually listened to her answers.” I felt he was her love interest from the moment he was introduced yet most of the story unfolds before any romance takes place. Sam takes her to Les Halles central market to sketch and “…he took her hand in his. They’d walked arm in arm before, usually when returning home after dinner, but this felt more intimate, the touch of a sweetheart, not merely a friend.”
The love story is late in coming yet perhaps Hobson had a reason for this? The novel is a richly detailed journey back in time and a rite of passage for our heroine.
Moonlight over Paris is published by HarperCollins.