Imogen Robertson’s previous novels have largely been set in England around 1780, but The Paris Winter, takes us to Paris in 1909. Fortunately, Robertson hasn’t lost anything in the move. If anything, she has refined her usual combination of crime-thriller plotting and thought-provoking social-historical observation to produce what may be her best work yet.
Maude has come to Paris, as so many do, to learn to paint. She’s studying in a proper academy for ladies and paying too much for the privilege. Starving, broke, and on the verge giving up and going back to England, she befriends a well-to-do Russian classmate who seems to be a bit of a dilettante. Her classmate introduces her to a wide cast of society figures and sets her up with a job that gives her a place to live and enough to eat as well as a good stipend. It all seems too good to be true, and it is.
As Maude tries to find a purchase for herself in a society that cares nothing for her, Robertson takes us on a tour of belle-epoque Paris high and low and in-between, illustrating not only the station and constraints of the protagonist but of the wide range of characters she meets.
This is very much a 21st-century novel in that so many of the characters in this novel seem to be searching for self-actualization through professional development — even the rich classmate’s devoted nursemaid wants to open her own restaurant. But it is a sign of Robertson’s talent that this comes across not as an anachronism but as a keen observation of how the early 20th century offered increased opportunities and an ever-so-slight loosening of societal restrictions around class and gender.