Published March 20, 2013 by Penguin Books Australia
Luc and Lisette Ravens – a former French resistance fighter and a one-time British spy – have somehow survived the war, but recovering from the horrors of those years is a challenge they’re yet to overcome. Casting their fate to the winds, they sail to Tasmania, hoping to rebuild their lives and plant new lavender fields in a land that’s full of promise.
In his darkest hour, Swiss law student Max Vogel learns a confronting truth. A long-held family secret links him to the Ravens on the other side of the world, and he finds himself holding the key to his own future and to Luc’s troubled past.
Together they return to Provence, so Luc can fulfil the promises by which he has been bound – to his beloved Lisette, to his Jewish family, and to the one man responsible for ripping so much from his life. With the future generation of lavender keepers in his care, Luc must lay to rest the ghosts of years gone by so that they all might live and love again.
From the south coast of England to the rugged farmland of northern Tasmania and the lively streets of postwar Paris, this is an extraordinary story of courage, determination and everlasting love from an internationally bestselling author.
The French Promise by Fiona McIntosh is the follow up narrative to the much-loved The Lavender Keeper. When I initially set out to read this novel, I had not read The Lavender Keeper, nor realised The French Promise was a sequel. That said, reading The French Promise as a stand-alone narrative did not hinder my understanding of the novel. I will elaborate further on this later in my review.
The French Promise starts with the final moments of Rachel’s life in Auschwitz, and although I didn’t know who this character was, I was completely and utterly hooked from the very first page with everything she had to say. So much so, that when Rachel’s life is over in the matter of a few pages I was emotionally distraught. This was my first indication that I knew I had struck gold with this particular novel.
In a nutshell, The French Promise is Luc’s story. Plagued by an identity crisis, he is forced to overcome a number of obstacles to learn what really matters in life. Like Luc, the narrative itself confronts some pretty horrific truths about the characters and the time setting, and its these moments and insights that set this novel apart from others within the genre. In many ways (and I mean no disrespect by saying this) writing about WWII and the Holocaust is popular within the current mainstream market, with at least six new release titles coming to mind from the last twelve or so months (Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller; Ben Elton’s The Two Brothers; Anna Funder’s All That I am; Leah Fleming’s The Girl Under The Olive Tree; Joy Chamber’s The Great Deception; Ken Follet’s Winter of The World; Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity). Yet it is The French Promise that stands out the most for me. Like many of the novels listed it is incredibly well written, but the emotional undercurrent and the unique perspectives combined with the novel’s intriguing elements of mystery and romance really place this narrative out on its own. Fiona McIntosh really shines as a must watch author here, one I know I will be following closely from now on.
Through the course of the novel we are introduced to a number of characters in a various geographical locations revealing the shared experiences of life after the war. In many ways it is these inclusions, and the various larger-than-life-characters portrayed throughout the novel that really appealed to me as a reader.
Unlike the first novel The Lavender Keeper (or so I’m led to believe), this novel is set mainly in the aftermath of WWII, when the world at large is trying to come to terms with what happened and how to move on. I’m not old enough to have witnessed the war personally or to have experienced the years directly following it. And yet it is periods of unrest and uncertainty like these that particularly interest me, especially since they are so rarely documented in either fiction or non-fiction. History books are rarely concerned with anything other than the event itself and the conflict’s immediate resolution. On the rare occasion when the aftermath isn’t entirely dismissed in the first place, it is usually dealt with in a short clinical assessment and then forgotten. The aftermath of such events is of little consequence; as far as the world is concerned the traumatic event has ended and those people involved are guaranteed (or so society and fiction usually leads us to believe) their happy ending. If they don’t get their ‘happy ending’ society simply doesn’t want to know; we can’t deal with it and we don’t know how to handle it.
The French Promise doesn’t make these assumptions, for unlike many other novels, it invites readers into the world of the characters and their chaotic lives and it holds nothing back. Luc Ravens and his haunting past is both troubled and exciting at the same time. He is confronted with demons from his past, while learning to cope, even to be content, with what he has in the here and now. That is, of course, until the unthinkable happens and his family is torn apart. Luc fails to come to terms with these events until he receives a letter from a stranger in Europe and his life is once again altered. This letter holds the key to many of Luc’s unanswered questions from the war, whilst also offering him everything he needs to fulfil certain promises made and the tools to right the wrongs done to him. From here Luc and his daughter Jenny are catapulted across Europe on a journey that is both about self-discovery and revenge.
This experience of the shared aftermath resonated so strongly with me personally, that I found myself unable to tear myself away from the narrative and the characters. It completely and utterly consumed me as it took over every waking second and thought I had; it’s emotions entangling with mine until I was crying as though I had lost my very own loved ones. McIntosh’s characters were so strong and lifelike as though they could literally leap of the page and they’d be standing right before you; they felt more like old friends than fictional characters and I’m not ashamed to admit that I mourned their deaths and losses accordingly.
McIntosh has perfected the art of pacing in this novel, with a perfect blend of romance, action, mystery and intrigue. Furthermore the relationships between her characters are tangible and so realistic that it is really not that hard to see these characters living in our world even now. The pain the characters felt was real, the lives they live tangible, and their hopes and dreams inspiring.
Interestingly enough, I started off not liking Jenny’s character, but with the narrative’s development and her overshadowing family members gone, I opened up to her in much the same ways Luc did. Her maturity surprised me and although I know many blunt people like her, I often questioned her age. Here is a girl whose lost her mother and brother in one fateful swoop, but she’s living it up in Europe. I liked that she was self-contained and driven; she knew what she wanted in life and how she was going to achieve it. In many ways, I hope that McIntosh has a third book waiting to be released in this series, for I’m optimistic in the belief and hope that we may get to see more of Jenny, Max and Robert in the future.
As a hopeless romantic, I simply adored the glimpses of the back-story and the natural progression of the relationships in this narrative. None of the relationships felt forced nor were we told how to view them. I was happy with Luc and Lisette when they started getting their lives back together, and overjoyed when we learnt about Jenny for the first time. After finding out about the connection between this book and The Lavender Keeper, I made sure to purchase it straight away. I should point out here that it wasn’t until a customer came into work begging for The French Promise that I even realised it was part of a series. It reads well on its own however, and while there were references to a back-story that I wasn’t fully aware of, there is enough in this book alone to keep you captivated and on top of everything. In fact the subtle hints of what came before enhanced, rather than detracted, my overall reading experience of the narrative. For at no point (even after having learnt that there was a book prior to this one) did I feel frustrated or as though I didn’t know enough of the back-story to fully comprehend the story before me. At times, especially early on in the story, I thought there might have been more to the narrative and I wanted to know what had come before, but I truly believe that The French Promise can stand alone by its own merits with no prior knowledge of McIntosh’s other books. That in itself is a true testimony to McIntosh’s ability to create a world before your eyes and immense you so fully in it.
That said, I am very much looking forward to experiencing the relationships and emotions all over again, to see love blossom for the first time (in The Lavender Keeper) and to get more than a glimpse of the raw emotions surrounding the love triangle of Killan, Lisette and Luc. I was flooded with emotions when Luc remembers driving a limo for Killan, as the latter has sex with the woman Luc loved in the back seat. The pain he feels is gripping, and McIntosh’s imagery and characterisation are unparalleled to anything I have read before. I thoroughly look forward to reading the first book to live through this love triangle and the first meeting between Luc and Lisette and how their story began. I wish to learn more about Rachel and her family and to relive the world that was theirs. And yet at the same time, I am desperately clinging to the hope that McIntosh continues with this series, as I’m not ready to leave these characters yet.
The depth of McIntosh’s writing and the world she presents both emotionally and historically is astounding; I couldn’t get enough. On more than one occasion I kept reading despite being exhausted and sleepy because one more page couldn’t possibly hurt. Before I knew it, it was well and truly past three in the morning and I had work in roughly five hours. Despite being tired all the following day, it didn’t stop me from managing to do the same thing the following night! At one stage in the narrative Max exclaims that his research “was fascinating. He simply had to know [more]” and in many ways I think this sums up my experience of the book.
Overall I found this novel to be a compulsive read. It’s a book I picked up on a whim, and I have never been so happy and glad that I did so. I laughed, I cried, I feel in love and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. The narrative itself is full of mystery and intrigue that is sure to leave you wanting more. It’s historically set and emotionally bound and the simple fact that the book explores the aftermath of the war and its continued toll on humanity both highlights McIntosh’s talent as an author, but also her novel in its own right.
The French Promise is a quick and captivating read that will leave you wanting more with its breathtaking writing and heartbreakingly beautiful narrative; it’s perfect for fans of historical novels; especially those enthralled by Paullina Simons’ The Bronze Horseman series.
My thanks go to the publisher and NetGalley for the e-copy of this book I received to review.
Fiona McIntosh is undertaking a country wide tour for the release of this novel and details of the tour can be found here.
The French Promise is avaliable from all good bookstores;
This book was read as part of my Australian Women’s Writer’s Challenge 2013
As well as part of my Romance Appreciation Challenge 2013
This review also appears on my Goodreads account and can be found here.