Reviewed: To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin
However we strive not to, it's impossible to avoid judging a book by the cover. To Capture What We Cannot Keep has quite the classiest cover I’ve seen in a while. The title too is a good one, and well-rooted in the story, but leans a little heavily on the success of Anthony Doerr’s magnificent All The Light We Cannot See. Hats off to the marketeers, I couldn't resist this one.
The year is 1887. Cait Wallace is thirty-one, young for a widow, and already a burden to her Scottish family.
‘Cait was the thirteenth at table, the odd one out, the lost last piece of the jigsaw puzzle.’
Desperate to escape the aching emptiness of her life in Glasgow, she accepts employment by a wealthy Scottish businessman to chaperone his naïve and rather foolish niece and nephew, Alice and Jamie, on a trip to Paris.
‘The French call ladies of Miss Wallace’s calibre formidable.’
The trio are afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ascend, ‘like a bubble through water’ in a hot air balloon high above the Champs de Mars, the exact spot, in fact, where Monsieur Eiffel is about to commence construction on his infamous tower.
Ēmile Nouguier, chief engineer of Eiffel’s tower, is aboard the hot air balloon to take photographs of what will shortly be the view from the top of the tower. His camera captures Cait as she stands, rigid with fear and awe. In that same moment, she captures his heart.
‘Were beautiful things more beautiful when you couldn’t keep them?’
To Capture What We Cannot Keep is an elegant romance. The plot is insubstantial but it is charmingly bolstered by the manner in which it is woven around a factual account of the construction of the Eiffel Tower.
Monsieur Nouguier begins work on the tower by excavating a huge muddy hole:
‘This was how the construction always began, Ēmile knew, with a subtraction rather than an addition.’
Colin, who is a teacher of creative writing, builds her plot in a similarly intentional manner. The protagonists must first be laid bare, stripped of love and contentment, laying the foundation from which the romance can rise.
Cait is instructed by her employer to encourage a match between Nouguier and her young charge but Alice has other plans involving a rakish count. Nouguier is under pressure from his Maman to find a suitably Bourgeois wife but instead becomes embroiled with a flighty artists’ model. Jamie, meanwhile, gallivants willy-nilly all over Paris while poor Cait does her utmost to curtail disaster.
‘Nothing has gone to plan. All of us are lost.’
Should Cait return to a life of polishing pews and arraying flowers in Glasgow, a life of ‘prudence and parsimony,’ or should she gamble all on a few more weeks in Paris?
You know from the outset what you want to happen but the tone is sufficiently downbeat that you can't be certain of happy ending.
The writing is crisp. There are some lovely descriptions but, in true Parisien style, it’s just a little stand-offish. Colin doesn’t try to grab you with cheap tricks but this reader thought a few bells and whistles wouldn’t have gone amiss. This is neither a tear-jerker nor a rollicking romp and the action stalls around the midpoint. Nonetheless, Colin has a certain je ne sais quoi, a credibility, that kept me turning the pages. About three quarters of the way through the author seemed to take heart and change gears. Tension and passion rose to match the levels of the tower and culminate in a riveting finale. I just wish Colin had hit her stride a hundred pages sooner.
Many romances are easy reads but are unsatisfactory at the close. Life, we know, doesn’t deal up so many happily ever afters. To Capture What We Cannot Keep is a slow-ish read with a grand ending.
The main characters are engaging – human, flawed and likeable. The minor characters, Alice, Jamie, their uncle, are pale by comparison and tending toward caricature. They are well-sketched, in theory, but needed a touch more colour.
The plot is laid on a bed-rock of impeccable research. It was this wealth of factual information that hooked me. My favourite type of historical fiction is that which allays the sensation of guilty pleasure with a good dose of learning something new. Here, Colin gets full marks.
To Capture What We Cannot Keep would serve as a palatable guidebook to the architecture of Paris, with extensive detail on the Eiffel tower and side notes on the impressionist movement and the politics of the day.
The author, having brilliantly interwoven fact and fiction, did herself a disservice by omitting a historical note at the back of the book. One of the most enjoyable parts of reading historical fiction is having some facts from which to suspend your disbelief. A quick foray into Google reveals that Ēmile Nouguier was indeed a handsome architect and designer of Gustave Eiffel’s tower. He worked with Eiffel on many projects, primarily building suspension bridges all over Europe. The tower conceived in his imagination as an attraction for the World’s Fair was the tallest man-made structure in the world. Eiffel’s plan was to recoup his building costs until his contract ran out after twenty years when the tower would be pulled down. By that time, of course, The Eiffel Tower had already become an iconic and indelible part of the Paris skyline. In the decade following the events of this book, and intriguingly in keeping with the plot, Nouguier built bridges in Senegal and Egypt.
To Capture What You Cannot Keep comes close to excellence and would make captivating reading material for anyone planning, or even imagining, a trip to Paris.