4 new historical fiction novels that defy expectations

The Postmistress of Paris

Meg Waite Clayton

Harper, 416 pages, $24.99

It’s WWII Paris, and American debutante, Sorbonne-educated Nanée Gold is hobnobbing with the Surrealist set. One evening she meets widowed photojournalist Edouard Moss, who moves to Sanary-Sur-Mer with his toddler daughter Luki. Their quiet lives are disrupted when Moss is arrested and taken to Camp des Milles, imprisoned with other anti-fascists like Max Ernst.

At the prison camp Moss writes letters to Luki which, though never sent, sustain him. Ernst’s pragmatic advice helps: “work staves off hunger and anger in equal parts.” Courage is essential. Always. Nanée pays for a safe house, Villa Air-Bel, wanting to do something real to help the persecuted, mostly Jewish, artists and intellectuals, “the same as any decent person in this newly terrible world surely must.”

When Nanée meets Varian Fry at the American Emergency Rescue Committee, she offers to take messages to wherever they need to go to facilitate escapes. As a woman of means who speaks fluent French, she hides in plain sight, an ideal operative. Her motto as this essential postmistress: “If you can’t lose a tail, don’t deliver the mail.”

Clayton’s characters are compelling, with richly-developed inner lives and the narrative drives masterfully to its pitch-perfect end.

The Sisters Sweet, by ElizabethWeiss, The Dial Press, 416 pages, $36.00

Sisters of the Great War

By Suzanne Feldman

MIRA Books, 400 pages, $21.99

Ruth and Elise Duncan rebel against their controlling father’s wishes in 1914 Baltimore and volunteer to serve in the war, working with the British on the front, Ruth as a nurse and Elise, an accomplished mechanic, as an ambulance driver. At a makeshift hospital in Belgium, due to the high volume of wounded, Ruth receives on-the-job medical training from patient and open-minded surgeons who encourage her to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor instead of a doctor’s wife.

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Both women push against society’s expectations, Elise finding love and belonging with a fellow female driver, Hera. These ambulance drivers, stretcher bearers, nurses and doctors alike must learn above all else to harden their hearts as not only will they face something daily they had never imagined, they will also never be able to save every patient in their care. Committed to working on the front through the armistice in November 1918, the Duncan sisters carve redemptive paths for themselves and for their beloveds in a future rife with hope.

An unsentimental, wonderfully researched page-turner.

The London House, by Katherine Reay, Harper Muse, 416 pages, $21.99

The London House

By Katherine Reay

Harper Muse, 416 pages, $21.99

When Caroline Payne is contacted by a former college classmate, historian Mat Hammond, she’s presented with his research finding that the great aunt she believed to have died in childhood from polio seemed, instead, to have betrayed family and country during WWII as a spy.

Caroline travels to the London house, her paternal grandparents’ home, to try to get answers. There, she reads correspondence between her grandmother Margo and Margo’s twin Caro, letters originally buoyant in the interwar years, but later fractured as they grew apart with Caro living an exciting life in 1930s Paris, working for designer Elsa Schiaparelli, in love with George, who would eventually become Caroline’s grandfather.

In a letter Margo received in October 1941, Caro implored her twin to “pull out our letters and find me in each shared story and in each detail.” Almost 80 years later, her namesake great-niece Caroline does just that.

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A deeply human story told with aplomb.

The Sisters Sweet, by ElizabethWeiss, The Dial Press, 416 pages, $36.00

The Sisters Sweet

By Elizabeth Weiss

The Dial Press, 416 pages, $36.00

In this coming-of-age story, twin sisters Harriet and Josie are launched into a singing act at age 5 in 1918. When the Spanish flu pandemic shuts down theatres, the girls and their parents Lenny and Maude must move in with Maude’s relatives, a home ruled by her brother-in-law pastor who holds her secret and uses it to control all of them.

Out of work set designer Lenny comes up with something ingenious, devising a contraption that the girls wear underneath expert costumes that makes them appear conjoined. Harriet and Josie are never seen in public unless they present themselves as the “Siamese Sweets.” The ruse lasts about a decade, until fed up Josie busts out to pursue her Hollywood dream.

Harriet admits that she’s “the family dud … a nobody stunned by her sister’s magnificence.” And, yet, her story chugs along to a redemptive ending in a life she chooses.

A winning debut that breathes life into the vaudeville circuit.

Janet Somerville is the author of “Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love & War 1930-1949,” available now in audio, read by Ellen Barkin.


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