The Brightest Star in Paris is the follow up to Diana Biller’s 2019 début, The Widow of Rose House. I haven’t got around to reading that one, but I gather that the books are linked by virtue of the fact that the hero of Brightest Star – Doctor Benedict Moore – is the brother of Sam from Rose House, and Alva, its heroine, is a good friend of this book’s heroine, Amelie. Despite those connections however, the stories in each book are separate and I had no trouble reading this one as a standalone. It’s rather lovely – beautifully written with a melancholy tinge, dealing with themes of grief and loss at the same time as it details the second-chance romance between Amelie and Benedict – but there are a few things that didn’t quite work for me that mean I can’t give it a higher grade.
The bulk of the story takes place in 1878, although there are a few flashback chapters that date back to twelve years earlier, when Benedict and Amelie first met. This was after Benedict returned from serving as a medic in the American Civil War, so haunted by his experiences that his family is deeply concerned for his health and spirits. Meeting Amelie, a bright, enchanting young woman who overflows with positive energy and completely captivates him, helps him find a renewed sense of purpose and start on his road to recovery; the pair fall in love, but (for reasons not made clear until much later in the book) Amelie sends him away and he leaves to return to America with his family. Just a few years later, Amelie and the people of Paris face terrible hardships resulting from the Franco Prussian War, The Siege of Paris and the bloody fall of the Paris Commune in 1870-1; these events effect profound changes on her life, as she is forced to do whatever is necessary in order to survive and take care of her much younger sister, Honorine.
Now, though, she’s the darling of Paris. Prima ballerina – étoile – at the Paris Opéra, Amelie is ‘St. Amie’, widely known and loved for her perfection, both on stage and off, a paragon of virtue in a world in which dancers were generally regarded as one step up from prostitutes. Her pristine image hasn’t come without a price, however; as she’s worked her body hard to attain peak physical condition so she’s also worked hard to create a very specific image, one she now has to maintain at all costs.
But that has become less and less easy over time, and she’s come to realise, too, that her dancing, while flawlessly polished, is form over substance, unemotional and just… not her. And then there’s the additional problem of a damaged hip, another secret she needs to maintain if she’s to continue to dance – for only another two years – until she has enough money to be able to retire comfortably and continue to provide for Honorine.
By the time Benedict returns to Paris in 1878 in order to attend a medical conference, he has become a specialist in the field of brain science and has been named as the head of the prestigious new United States Institute for Brain Research. He hasn’t quite decided whether he will seek out Amelie or not when fate conspires to put him in her path on his very first day in the city. Both of them are stunned – and Benedict can see that Amelie isn’t exactly overjoyed to see him.
Just after the unexpected encounter with Benedict, which has stirred up all sorts of deep, conflicting feelings, Amelie goes to do some barre practice, and as she’s working, she’s joined by a member of the corps de ballet, a young woman whose name she can’t immediately recall. After working silently for a while, they exchange a few words, and Amelie leaves, thinking no more of it until the next day when she learns that the body of the very same dancer – Lise Martin – was pulled from the Seine that morning – and that she has been dead for at least three days. But how can that be? Amelie spoke to her just the night before so it’s impossible… unless she’d had a conversation with Lise Martin’s ghost.
Amelie reaches this conclusion a little quickly perhaps, but even she admits there’s a difference between believing in ghosts and actually seeing one – and her ability to see one seems to open up a door or gate, as Lise’s spirit is quickly joined by those of two other women Amelie had known. She’s sure she needs to do something for them, something to help them find peace, but she doesn’t know what that is, and the spirits themselves either can’t or won’t tell her. She needs help, and reaches out to Benedict, who she knows will believe her, given his own family’s experiences with the spirit world. Benedict is, of course, immediately on board with this, and suggests that he should pretend to court her, as it will allow them to spend time in each other’s company while they work out what the spirits want without giving rise to gossip which might tarnish her reputation.
There’s much to enjoy here, from the complex and superbly characterised Amelie, to the snarky interactions between the ghosts, to the author’s depictions of what life was like for Amelie in a Paris torn to pieces by war and devastation, which are stunningly good and utterly heartbreaking. The paranormal element of the tale is skilfully incorporated and works well within the context of the story, and the romance is a sweet slow-burn. I liked seeing how Benedict learns to respect Amelie and her choices, despite how much he longs to ride in and save and protect her. But although there’s no question they care for each other very much, and I felt the depth of the affection between them, the ‘spark’ of attraction is somewhat muted.
One of the things that caused me to lower my grade a bit is the pacing, which flags around the middle of the book, but which, in the final chapters, gallops towards the end so fast that I was in danger of whiplash. The second-half appearance of the unconventional and slightly bonkers Moore clan means the disappearance of the ghost plotline for a bit, and while it’s true that their arrival does inject a bit of necessary humour and light into the story, the juxtaposition feels jarring.
All that said, however, I enjoyed The Brightest Star in Paris a lot and would certainly recommend it in spite of my reservations. It’s extremely well written, and while at times is extremely sad, Amelie’s spirit and determination really do shine through and the eventual HEA is hard won and well deserved.
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