Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Received for review and buddy read via Netgalley
Set against the construction of the Eiffel Tower, this novel charts the relationship between a young Scottish widow and a French engineer who, despite constraints of class and wealth, fall in love.
In February 1887, Caitriona Wallace and Émile Nouguier meet in a hot air balloon, floating high above Paris, France--a moment of pure possibility. But back on firm ground, their vastly different social strata become clear.
Cait is a widow who because of her precarious financial situation is forced to chaperone two wealthy Scottish charges. Émile is expected to take on the bourgeois stability of his family's business and choose a suitable wife. As the Eiffel Tower rises, a marvel of steel and air and light, the subject of extreme controversy and a symbol of the future, Cait and Émile must decide what their love is worth.
Seamlessly weaving historical detail and vivid invention, Beatrice Colin evokes the revolutionary time in which Cait and Émile live--one of corsets and secret trysts, duels and Bohemian independence, strict tradition and Impressionist experimentation. To Capture What We Cannot Keep, stylish, provocative, and shimmering, raises probing questions about a woman's place in that world, the overarching reach of class distinctions, and the sacrifices love requires of us all.
To Capture What We Cannot Keep is the most recent buddy read that I took on with my friends Stephanie at Layered Pages and Colleen at A Literary Vacation. We were so excited to read this one together because of the idea of the construction of the iconic Tower; ultimately this turned out to be somewhat of a dud for all of us, leading us to consider how we are selecting our next read!
One thing that Colin does exceptionally well is craft a world that you can see, feel, touch, and smell. It comes to life off the page, no matter if it is a dank alleyway or the lap of luxury. We were constantly enthralled with the way even such simple things that we experience every day were described in a whole new way. Some of the best world crafting I have ever read! Here are a couple of my favorite examples for some flavor:
“The room had gradually lost its allure. It was too hot, the air too close, and the smell of perspiration and shoe leather had become overpowering. The gold and paint, the class and crystal, were as cloying as the scent of the white lilies that had been artfully displayed in a vase on the mantelpiece.” (Chapter 37)
“At the top, a door opened on to a warren of rooms set around a huge chandelier, the lowest of its crystals falling only inches from the floor. It was impossible to stand upright; Emile had to stoop. The worker lay in bed in the back room, a filthy curtain drawn across the top half of what was once the drawing-room window.” (Chapter 14)
The other element that I found fascinating and done to perfection was the integration of the building of the Eiffel Tower into the story of two young adults and their chaperone travelling abroad. The two elements couldn’t be more different, but came together in seamless perfection. Emile is one of Eiffel’s right hand men and as such he is right in the thick of every disaster and upheaval that occurred during the process of erecting this behemoth. I honestly found the portions related to the Tower to be the most interesting of the whole novel and could have handled even more set on the scene.
The rest of the novel held a lot of promise, but did not live up to the expectations set out in the description. Cait as a chaperone for Alice and Jamie was plain awful at her job; I mean, she is there for one reason and can’t even keep track of these two as they run off every five minutes. And while this could lead to some interesting antics, they never turned out to be all that exciting. Alice is SO naïve it was cliché. Jaime, while somewhat more worldly, is still quite naïve as demonstrated in a few select scenes. I found them to be paper thin – actually I found most of the characters to be that way. Cait is disappointed with the options left her as a widowed woman and some of that is explored, but I never was made to really care about what option she would choose in the end. Even the touted romance between her and Emile seemed based on very little and was certainly not enough to drive the plot or make a difficult decision. The character with the most promise was Gabrielle, Emile’s mistress, who was sure to leave trouble in her wake, and she did, but I certainly expected a lot more from her considering how disappointed I was with the rest of the plot and characters.
Speaking of the plot, it moved at an almost glacial pace, sometimes feeling like we were going in reverse. Many chapters would pass by with almost no forward progression; I was often left waiting for something to happen only to be left disappointed with the little bit that did. Ultimately I just wanted to get to the end of the novel to see how it resolved, but I didn’t exactly care what happened to the characters either. So much promise, but not enough follow thru.
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