Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Not every door should be opened . . .
Somewhere along the cobbled streets of Paris, an apartment lies thick with dust and secrets: full of priceless artworks hidden away for decades.
High-flying fine art agent Flora from London, more comfortable with the tension of a million-pound auction than a cosy candlelit dinner for two, is called in to assess these suddenly discovered treasures. As an expert in her field, she must trace the history of each painting and discover who has concealed them for so long.
Thrown in amongst the glamorous Vermeil family as they move between Paris and Antibes, Flora begins to discover that things aren't all that they seem, while back at home her own family is recoiling from a seismic shock. The terse and brooding Xavier Vermeil seems intent on forcing Flora out of his family's affairs - but just what is he hiding?
Karen Swan always writes books that have a good balance between glitz and glamour coupled with a good solid storyline, sometimes with an element of mystery. We've come to expect both a summer and Christmas book from this author and with each new book her writing skills grow and improve. The Paris Secret has a simple yet striking cover and belies the substance hidden between its covers. Karen has drawn inspiration from an event that made news headlines several years ago as a Parisian apartment that had been locked since the war was discovered and inside it was as if time had stood still since the day its owner departed for a safer place as war raged around the world. This apartment proved to be a treasure trove of antiques and paintings and a glimpse into a world long forgotten. The author has used this discovery as the basis for her story and has written a book full of mystery and intrigue but not forgetting the usual glamour and scandal that we have come to enjoy in her books. There was a real sense of uncovering the past mysteries to make sense of the present throughout this book and it proved to be a really enjoyable read that would be perfect for sitting by the pool soaking up the sun.
The Paris Secret opens in July 2016 as in the dead of night two men break into an apartment only to discover it more or less bare and empty covered in dust and abandoned. But as they move through the rooms they discover a crate and in it is something which will change the lives of one family forever as secrets and lies slowly start to rise to the surface and people must face the realities of actions long ago forgotten and kept under wraps by a select few. In August of the same year Flora Sykes is taking a brief break at her family home amidst her hectic workload dealing with the art world. Her life is a series of flights and trips to many cities working for her boss Angus. Flora is ambitious but not in your face or overly smug about the job she does. She was instantly likeable and has brains as well as beauty. She is an independent woman who has a caring side coupled with great detective skills which are put to good use throughout this story. There was plenty of depth and substance to her character and for once a story like this wasn't all about Flora finding romance yes there was an element of love but that was more in the later half of the book and thankfully didn't become the dominant focus as the author stuck to the themes she had set up in the first half of the novel. Flora would admit herself she is a workaholic and works until she burns herself out. Her father had been chief auctioneer at Christie's until his retirement and although she has no plans to follow in his footsteps she does want to be successful at what she does but more so than that the reader got a real sense that Flora loved what she did.
Often in books the main character is more or less fed up of their lives when we meet them and sick of their jobs and therefore can be very whingy and always moaning. Not so with Flora she is strong and knows what she wants but will not use ruthless means to achieve this. Her main problem seemed to be adrenaline - 'Her life was ruled by it, long, intense, work around the clock bursts followed by crashes into oblivion'. Taking a short break at her parents house Flora finds her mother as usual always worrying about everything but older brother Freddie doesn't seem like himself at all and is clearly hiding something. The reader does not discover what this is until the end and although a very valid and topical storyline I didn't think it really added anything to the overall story and could have been omitted despite it being covered with tact.
Back in London Flora receives a message from Angus saying she needs to get to Paris asap as what has just been discovered has the potential to send his business into the stratosphere if all turns out as it appears to be. As Flora specialises in bringing in new business and buying in the sales room she is the perfect person to deal with Vermeil family who have just discovered they are the owners of an apartment they never even knew existed until receiving a note from an unknown source. Everything must be kept hush hush for as long as possible because this is no ordinary apartment. It is an apartment that has remained firmly stuck in time as all around it moved forward. It is a delight for any antiques expert as Flora soon discovers it was left exactly as the day the last inhabitant fled during the war.
The author writes such rich and vivid descriptions of all the contents of the apartment including the stuffed ostrich Flora affectionately names Gertie. I could picture everything clearly in my head and the detailed descriptions really brought the historical aspects of the story to life. Straight away I wanted to know more about who had broken into the apartment and why had they sent a note to the Vermeil family? But the author really did tease us and this seemed to have been forgotten about for quite some time until she effortlessly weaved it into the story and to be honest it was quite clever as to who they were. Flora is tasked by the Vermeil's - Lillian and Jacques - to catalogue everything she finds in the apartment in the hopes that it can be sold. Soon we discover who really owned the apartment but not the reasons for it remaining shut. There is a lot more going on than first meets the eye and it made for an interesting, tense, absorbing story.
As Flora catalogues the contents of the apartment she discovers what she believes to be very valuable paintings and if proven genuine would cause a storm in the world she inhabits. Here is where the story began to take so many twists and turns that at some stages it proved hard to keep up with what was going on. Flora is under pressure to prove the provenance of the paintings without this nothing can be sold. Yes a real mystery element came into play and it was fascinating to read of the research Flora undertook as she digs deeper and deeper into the past, and the historical aspects were fascinating, but for me there was a bit too much art terminology and for a time the story became bogged down in this and slowed down the pace of the plot slightly. As we reached the halfway point and big revelations come to the surface I felt where could they book go from here surely this is all done and dusted what was there left to say but I was wrong and the author took us from the bright lights of Paris to the warm, glamorous area of Antibes and although the second half did feel very distinct and separate from what we had read before, and at one stage I was worried this was beginning to read like two different books, really it was all coming together nicely to build up to a very surprising climax. One in which the author brought facets of history long forgotten to the fore and made me reassess the opinions I had felt regarding certain characters. When the book moved location and Flora followed the Vermeil's to Antibes the story took on the more glamorous tone which a book of this nature needed. Xavier and Natascha the children of the Vermeil's came to the fore and to be honest I wasn't all that impressed with either of them. They just came across as rich, spoilt and people who took everything they had and were given for granted. Well those were my thoughts at first and then once everything was turned on its head, this made me realise I really need to stop judging everything on initial perceptions as I did this with another book recently too and I should really stop doing this and just keep reading to uncover the truth.
The Paris Secret is a book I would definitely recommend you read this summer. It ticked all the books for me (aside from my minor issue with too much art detail but I suppose that was there to inform the reader). Karen has taken her inspiration from real life and crafted a story that proved to be an entertaining read full of surprises and just when you believe you have it all figured out along comes another curve ball and you are forced to reassess everything you thought had been fact. This book proved to be a good old fashioned page turner with an author was is truly coming into her own. I'm already looking forward to her Christmas book coming in November - Christmas Under the Stars in the meantime don't hesitate to pick up a copy of this riveting read.
Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for my copy of The Paris Secret to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.