Shauna Vincent, a graduate from the north of England, has just learned that the job she set her heart on has gone to a socially well-connected rival. Devastated, she accepts an offer in France from an old family friend - to be au pair to the woman's grandchildren. Within a week, Shauna is deep in the Dordogne. With little to do other than organise her two charges' busy social diaries, she has endless hours in which to explore the magical landscape that surrounds her. Her new home is the ancient Chateau de Chemignac with its vineyards and hidden secrets, including a locked tower room where she unearths a trove of vintage gowns, one of which feels unsettlingly familiar. Then Shauna falls asleep one afternoon in a valley full of birdsong, and has a strange dream of a vintage aircraft circling threateningly overhead. So when she suddenly awakes to find charming local landowner Laurent de Chemignac standing over her - Shauna wonders if the dashing aristocrat might be just the person to help her untangle this unexpected message from the past.
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Natalie Meg Evans writes in the historical fiction genre and boy does she excel herself in her chosen area, I adored The Milliner's Secret when it was released just a few months ago. Natalie makes you feel like you are right there back in war torn Paris embroiled in a story of struggles, hardship and love. I do admit her début novel The Dress Thief is still in my T.B.R but I have heard great things about it. Maybe it's not a bad thing that I still have it to devour as apart from reading this newly released novella – A Gown of Thorns, Natalie's next full length novel isn't published until mid way through next year. This is quite a wait for all the fans she has earned through her attention to detail, time and place and her incredible storytelling ability.
I jumped at the chance to review this novella, which we received from NetGalley, which has such an ingenious title and really fits in well with the premise behind the book. It has the most eye-catching cover which draws you in to the mystery and secrets lying in wait between the pages. It's not often fans in this genre are given the pleasure to enjoy a novella so I soaked up every word.
Once again Natalie takes us back to France but this time away from the bright city lights of Paris to the Dordogne wine producing region and to a new period in time. We are no longer focused on the war years but rather modern day times with alternate periods set during for a brief moments during the war as a series of flashbacks are used to enhance the story. Some may question why keep setting the books in France? But if it has been successful in Natalie's two previous releases why change anything? Natalie obviously knows her stuff and has a love for the country and yet again has done impeccable research. There is plenty of detail given into the process of picking the grapes and producing the wine. It wasn't too much information and gave us an insight into just how much goes into making the liquid that so many of us enjoy. Either way it's nice for a change to read of a different place and time and to become more familiar with a country I have not had the opportunity of visiting.
Shauna Vincent is stepping off a train in rural, sun soaked France to begin a summer job as an au pair to Madame Duval's (a distant relation on her mother's side) grandchildren. Shauna is a scientist but has been hurt as the job promised to her was given to another person right from under her nose. She is going to use this time to heal and decide in which direction her career path will take her next. Little does she know the summer will prove eventful to say the least as at Château de Chemignac a certain dress is laying in wait ready to expose secrets and deceit kept hidden for over sixty years.
Natalie does an amazing job of describing the château and the surrounding land that straight away you are transported to France where Shauna had hoped to spend a blissful summer. Shauna gets a routine going with the kids and also meets Laurent who runs the vineyard and a livery business. He is Isabelle's nephew and lives at the château as does Uncle Albert. Also on hand is Rachel who has worked at Laurent's side for years. But right from the very first time we meet her she comes across as evil, mean, spiteful and manipulative. Oh really I could go on and on. I don't say this easily but god I hated her and the role she had to play the further we read through the story. Whereas Laurent was such a lovely man who you could see longed for stability and love in his life. But the past and events from over sixty years ago are still echoing around the château. Only now the memories and reminders are knocking ever more firmly at the door wanting resolutions and answers.
There was only the tiniest of lulls in the book where the author seemed to go into too much detail of the daily routine of the kids and Shauna but once we got over that the action really picked up pace. As Shauna explores around the château she discovers a tower. A tower which not many people want to venture into any more especially Isabelle. She discovers a dress and of course gives into temptation to try it on. She feels strange like the dress has some hold over her and is attempting to tell her something. Does this dress have many tales to tell and is it connected to the sadness that at times seems to permeate the château? The dress Shauna discovers is the gown of thorns as mentioned in the title and soon she uncovers a story that someone wants kept hidden. But Shauna's scientific nature gets the better of her and she sets out on a quest for answers which she hopes will reveal the truth. Falling asleep in a meadow on a summers day seems innocent enough but not when what you dream about makes you question everything you had been told.
Finally the historical element came into play and I won't mention anything at all about this except to say it was weaved effortlessly into the plot and made strong connections between the past and the present. These sections were slowly drip fed to us revealing startling, shocking information and I loved every minute of it as I love history and details surrounding the period mentioned. Shauna was a superbly written character whose stay at the château changed her outlook on life. She was a woman determined to find justice and peace for those that needed it and whilst doing so may just have healed her heart and soul with the aid of a dashing man any woman would want by their side.
Many novellas often feel rushed and way too short (one I read recently was only 29 pages) and are over before they even have had time to begin, no time is given for plot or character development. I am relieved to be able to say none of these things are the case with A Gown of Thorns, so much thought and time has been put into all aspects of the story that fans of Natalie are in for a real treat. At over 200 pages this is some value for money as at the time of writing it is only 70p. I felt like I had read a full length novel even though Natalie's previous books have been well over the 500 page mark. Yes you do have to suspend disbelief at certain aspects connecting the past with the present. I often find elements like this too wishy washy or unfathomable needing more concrete evidence but here I just went with the flow as I was so absorbed at what was unfolding before my eyes.
I feel this author is just going to get better and better with each book and that's saying something considering the standard she has already set for herself. This story has only whet my appetitie to read even more of Natalie's work as she is an author who just writes brilliant books. Don't hesitate to buy this wonderful story.