Friday, 7 August 2015

Guest Book Review: Natalie Meg Evans - The Milliner's Secret

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

June 1940. As Paris, the City of Light, approaches its darkest hour, a young woman treads the line between survival and collaboration.

Londoner Cora Masson has reinvented herself as Coralie de Lirac, using a false claim to aristocratic birth to launch herself as a fashionable milliner. When the Nazis invade, the influence of a high-ranking lover protects her business.

But the cruel demands of war - and of love - cannot be kept at bay forever. Soon Coralie must find the courage to do what's necessary to protect her friends, her freedom and everything she believes in.

Amazon links: Kindle or Paperback

The Milliners Secret is the second novel from Natalie Meg Evans. Following on from the success of her début novel The Dress Thief (which won an award) the author takes us back in time to late 1930's London and to Paris during the German occupation in what was the horrific World War Two. I have to admit The Dress Thief is still sitting in my T.B.R and having heard several characters from the first book make a reappearance I was bit apprehensive about reading this one. I don't like reading sequels without knowing the background to characters but the author reassured me on Twitter that both books are distinctly separate despite a crossover of some characters and the time frame. That said I began this book in anticipation as the cover and blurb alone really had spiked my interest. Being honest I found it very slow to get going, I was enjoying it but felt we weren't getting to the real action. There was too much description in the first part of the book based in London, it was only well into the book at over 260 pages did I really begin to sink my teeth into it and from that moment on I couldn't put it down staying up late into the night to finish what turned out to be a brilliant, brilliant unputdownable book. Which goes to show you should always persist with books as they must just surprise you and if I hadn't kept going with this book I would have missed out on a fantastically told story.

The prologue opens with three women in a nightclub in Paris. They are on edge the Germans are all around and it seems the women are up to something. The scene is full of tension and dramatics. But suddenly we move back three years earlier to London and Cora Masson is once again being beaten by her father Jac for money. But she has the upper hand and despite her bruises goes on to enjoy the rare treat of a day at the Derby with her friend Donal. Here she meets the enigmatic Dietrich Graf Von Elbing and Ottilia his companion. Little does Cora know this encounter will forever change her life and take her far from everything she has known. Cora knew working in a hat factory was not the life for her. She is ambitious and realises there are better opportunities out there and she will take advantage of every one presented to her. Circumstances force her to escape from London and Dietrich comes to her aid although now living in Paris she is forced to adopt a new identity and history. In the romantic city she is simply called Coralie de Lirac. Coralie and Dietrich have this connection and bond instantaneously and there were so many ups and downs to their story that I wouldn't blame you for getting lost. Their love is wrong considering everything that is going on during the war. But world wide events should not get in the way of love even if your lover is from the opposing side.

Coralie goes through so many tough times as she attempts to find work and maybe establish her own millinery business. This proved a riveting storyline in itself as there was betrayal, secrets and nastiness galore with fellow workers in the industry. Alongside that we have the romance of Dietrich and Coralie although other men do make a reappearance. We have her friends Otillia, Úna, Violainne and many more and of course World War Two and all that it entails. I couldn't even begin to tell you any more so much happens it would only confuse you. Thank god I took some notes because at the pace I was reading I would have struggled to keep track of everything. But the author has done an amazing job of weaving everything together to produce an exciting story full of scandal, corruption, murder, collaboration, tension, betrayal and above all else the power of love. I think this quote perfectly sums up the character of Coralie more than I ever could 'a working class girl who dared to reach for her dreams found plenty of people ready to shove her back down. Down she must go .... only to bob back up again like a champagne cork'. I was with Coralie every step as she worked to achieve her dreams and thoroughly enjoyed her journey.

There were so many layers and aspects to this story. Not just that of Coralie and her friends but of bigger events ongoing apart from the struggles and deprivation in their lives. Finely balanced alongside the characters issues were the resistance groups in France struggling to achieve freedom and to win the war. We are given a detailed, insightful view into the German occupation of Paris and how ordinary French people had to survive on a daily basis alongside the Nazi's, the Gestapo and the army. Corruption, brutality and abuse were rife and Natalie has certainly opened up my eyes to an aspect of the war which I hadn't given much thought to. The historical factual information was slotted in at just the right time updating us on what was going on a world wide scale at various points during the war. It seemed natural to read of it and these paragraphs helped move the story on a couple of months or so. 

The Milliners Secret is a story of a journey and a complete transformation for our main character not just in terms of her appearance and her personal details but how her guts and determination pull her through the most testing time of her life. Her love for her child always came first but yet her business brain always kicked into action when needed the most because she knew her talents, skills and know how were what would make her survive all the war was throwing at her. At times her heart did rule her head but I can't really blame her as Dietrich was a character I genuinely fell in love with myself. Working for the Germans and having such a high position in the army and the things he had to I suppose I wasn't meant to like him but there was something drawing me to him just like what happened to Coralie. Natalie made me root for a character I wasn't supposed to which is a sign of her astonishingly good writing and her way with words. She inspired emotions in me that I rarely feel for characters.

Further into the book Coralie takes on a challenge that many people would shy away from which further shows the reader her strength and ambition. What struck me most about this was although I know this was a fictional story balanced alongside true facts and events there must have been women at the time who like Coralie put their lives on the line. Women who for the good of their country and for the war effort did whatever was necessary to help their men secure victory and freedom. Where would be now if these brave women had not such played a pivotal role does not bare thinking about? The astonishing climax of the novel had me shouting out and it took an awful lot for Natalie to write that but I can't say I liked what happened considering everything we had read.

As I have mentioned before I couldn't get into this book in the beginning but just like they say with an album the more you listen the more it grows on you. That was the case for me here the further I read the more the story began to affect me and I was enthralled right to the very last page. Although I found the last chapter before the epilogue needed a bit of stretching out I felt there was a piece missing in Coralie's story that I would have liked to read more about. The epilogue did rap up the story nicely though. To keep so many strands of a story going and to keep my interest for over 560 pages was a massive undertaking from Natalie Meg Evans but she has succeeded with style. I had forgotten about minor characters mentioned in the first few chapters not thinking there were necessary to the story but the author knew what she was doing. Every character, every scene, every little detail was essential and could have not been left out otherwise huge holes would have appeared in the overall plot. I was thinking there are way too many characters to keep track of but every one of them had a role to play and by god did they play it well. I never finish books and think oh I want to turn back to page one and start rereading it again immediately (I believe there are way too many books out there that I will enjoy) but I so wanted to do that here this book was that good. 

This book is simply a stunningly told tale that hopefully will win Natalie more awards. In her acknowledgements she mentions how tears were wept over the keyboard but rest assured Natalie those tears were not shed in vein you have produced a phenomenal book. Thankfully I can now go back and read The Dress Thief and discover who does make a reappearance in book two and soak up what I know will be another wonderful story. This reader is now most certainly a firm fan of the work of Natalie Meg Evans.

Many thanks to Alianna at Quercus for sending me a copy to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the sound of this book..another one to add to my wish list!