In brief: In World War II Paris, Eliane is working with the Nazis by day and the Resistance by night to save Paris’s priceless artworks. In the present day, Remy finds that the painting she’s known since childhood was stolen by the Germans during the war. How did she end up with it?
The good: Two strong female main characters in Eliane and Remy.
The not-so-good: I’m not the biggest fan of art.
Why I chose it: Needed an engrossing story and Natasha Lester doesn’t disappoint.
Setting: Mainly France
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Natasha Lester writes engaging historical fiction with a big heart and The Riviera House continues strongly in that tradition. Set mainly in France, the story covers dual timelines of strong women finding their way in the world.
Eliane is a young woman in World War II France. Forced to work at the Louvre rather than study art due to the family finances, she falls in love with Xavier. But as the Nazis enter France, her family is divided and she is forced to work for the Germans cataloguing the art they have stolen from Jewish families and museums. It is here that Eliane becomes part of the Resistance working against the Nazis – she pretends she doesn’t understand German and she and colleague Rose start their own secret catalogue of art stolen. But it’s so much more complicated than that after Xavier appears alongside the Nazis and one of the German officers takes a shine to Eliane. She is forced to play a difficult game, not knowing who has her back – and who is ready to sell her out. Meanwhile, in present day Remy has escaped to her house on the Riviera after the death of her husband and daughter. She’s there to try to heal and work on her vintage fashion business (which is stunning!). She didn’t intend to run into an acquaintance, Adam, who becomes a friend with possibilities. When they find a copy of the painting Remy has had since childhood in a book of stolen paintings, both are determined to find out how this links to Remy and the family she’s never known.
I must admit that I’m not the biggest fan of art, so while I knew most of the names of the artists mentioned, I wasn’t familiar with the works. This didn’t really matter in the overall plot though, as the focus turns more to the effort by Eliane and her friends to work against the Nazis. The stakes get higher, and the drama is real edge of your seat sort of stuff! Remy’s mystery of how she got the painting (and her lavish house) did engage me instantly, but by the halfway mark of the novel I was fully invested in both the women’s stories. Eliane’s is one of courage and determination while Remy’s story is that of loss and learning to live and trust again. Both are strong women (no moping around for what is lost) and although they both have been broken, they get up to fight another day. Eliane’s descriptions of the casual cruelty of the Nazis are stark (and made more sombre by recent events in Ukraine). Her story is also based on a true story of stolen art during World War II which made everything feel that bit more serious – this really happened. I did enjoy Remy’s story, particularly the mystery and her gorgeous clothes, but it was a tone lighter which was a nice break from the horrors of war.
Overall, The Riviera House is compulsively readable and the characters and events stay in your mind while you aren’t reading about them. It’s a story of love, loss, war and mystery which is highly satisfying,
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