The Confectioner's Tale
Paris is one of my favorite cities to visit, so when I learned that the historical portions of The Confectioner’s Tale are set in Paris in 1910 it seemed a perfect book for me to review. I was intrigued to learn that the “contemporary” portion is set in 1988 – mostly in Cambridge, another favorite city. But while I enjoyed parts of the book, I was also bored at times, and never felt close to either the historical or contemporary characters.
In 1988, Petra Stevenson is a PhD student at Cambridge and spends all of her time on personal research rather than on her dissertation. She knows she’s in trouble with her studies, in fact has had repeated meetings in which various faculty staff warn her she’s in trouble, but she doesn’t care. Petra adored her late grandfather, a noted historian, but his biographer is threatening to reveal secrets that will destroy his reputation. When we first meet Petra she’s burst into a lecture hall to hear the researcher say he’s found a letter placing her grandfather in the center of a scandal. Petra thinks he’s lying and searches for evidence to prove him wrong. But instead, she finds a photograph of her grandfather as a young man along with two people she doesn’t recognize. On the back of the photo her grandfather wrote “Forgive me.”
In late 1909 we’re introduced to Guillaume – or Gui – who has come from Bordeaux to Paris with a friend to work on the railroad. On their first night in Paris the two go out to a nightclub, Gui goes wandering around Paris somewhat the worse for wear and ends up outside the Patisserie Clermont. A young woman comes out and gives him the most delicious hot chocolate he’s ever had. It turns out that Mademoiselle Clermont – or Jeanne — is the daughter of the patisserie’s owner. Gui is enchanted with both the patisserie and Jeanne. Over the coming weeks she periodically gives him evening work unloading supplies there..
When Gui rescues Jeanne from a flood that sweeps through her section of Paris, he’s taken into the patisserie for the evening and is introduced to Jeanne’s father, who clearly disapproves of him. Gui then blackmails Jeanne’s father and forces him to give him a job in the patisserie. Gradually Gui and Jeanne develop a secret, personal relationship, one that seems destined for disaster. The descriptions of the food – and the cooking process –are vivid and fascinating. I found myself craving chocolate and every type of sweet Gui was involved with making.
Both the contemporary and historical portions of the novel would have benefitted from more depth to the characterization . The historical sections are told in the third person focusing on Gui and we never get a direct glimpse into Jeanne’s feelings or motivations. To be honest, while I understood Gui’s fascination with the patisserie, I remain puzzled as to the reasons for his fascination with Jeanne.
In the contemporary part, while we get glimpses into Petra’s motivations, the focus is clearly on her search and not on developing her as a sympathetic, three-dimensional character. We know Petra is friends with a fellow student – who is clearly interested in being more than a friend – but that’s about it.
Overall I enjoyed the contemporary portions more than the historical ones, although they’re not without flaws. I liked following Petra as she researches her grandfather’s secret, which she eventually links to the Patisserie Clermont. The setting of 1988 was clever; in the days before the advent of the internet, Petra can’t simply Google “Patisserie Clermont.” She has to do painstaking research in various libraries and galleries trying to locate clues to her grandfather’s past.
I’ve struggled for several weeks to write this review. The Confectioner’s Tale isn’t an awful book, but for the most part it didn’t hold my interest, which really surprised me, given my love for the featured locations. The connection between the two time periods is slow to build, and I find myself wishing the author had focused solely on either the historical or contemporary section, because as the book stands, I really can’t recommend it.