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Capturing Romance in Nineteenth Century Paris

Sarah Biggerstaff

To Capture What We Cannot Keep is the latest novel from Scottish writer Beatrice Colin.

It is marketed as a generic historical romance – this, I feel, is something of a disservice to the book, as it offers more than typical period piece love story. The novel centres on Caitriona Wallace, a young widow who is forced to chaperone the rich Arrol siblings for money, as it is one of the only respectable professions available to an impoverished genteel lady.

The story unfolds predominantly in Paris, where construction is underway for what is to be the tallest manmade structure in the world to date – the Eiffel Tower. In Paris, Cait spends most of her days trailing after the man-mad Alice, following her from dress fitting, to milliner, to corsetiere, in pursuit of the perfect ensemble in which to catch an eligible husband. In between times, she attempts to keep tabs on Alice’s rambunctious brother, Jamie, who spends his time alternately pursuing a career as an engineer with hot and cold interest, and chasing women. For herself, Cait dreams only of a life with purpose, that will distract her from her own dark past, and maybe, just maybe, give her something to look forward to in the future.

It is a story rife with family and social pressures, romance, and intrigues, in which the almost absurd social niceties of the Victorian period appear alongside the hidden sub-cultures of a society struggling to redefine itself after decades of unrest and reformation. It is full of interesting historical detail, referencing the Impressionist art movement, the post-Revolution French government, and the numerous advances that were occurring socially, politically, and technologically at the time.

Amongst all this historical detail is the love story at the heart of the novel. However, it is a slow burner, and does not rely on the titillation common among many of the modern novels branded as romances; it steadily builds up the relationship between Cait and her French lover, Emile, through brief meetings and small exchanges. It asks whether or not love has the power to successfully cross social barriers and thrive in the face of thwarted family expectations. It also asks if, after all, there is hope for love after loss.

To Capture What We Cannot Keep is a beautifully crafted novel, though a little slow at times, relying on gradual character development and an intricately interwoven narrative. It has all the qualities one has come to expect of a good period drama: social commentary, significant historical settings, a solid and tortuous romantic plot, and, above all, a heroine of unimpeachable quality, who attracts the reader’s empathy immediately.

The novel is a great, non-taxing read, easy to get into and often hard to put down. I definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fan of a good romance, period drama, or even just a bit of a Francophile. Definitely put it on your to-read list, and keep an eye out for other works by Beatrice Colin, because if this one is anything to go by, they are bound to be a great read.

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Sarah Biggerstaff

Sarah Biggerstaff is a literary enthusiast, from Canberra, with a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of York in the United Kingdom. She is currently in her first year of an English PhD, the focus of which is British women’s fiction from the inter-war period, with a particular interest in feminist readings of these novels. Sarah hopes to one day write books, as well as review them, and in the meantime, is happy sharing her passion for books with others. More about the Author