Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Review: LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

If, as Audrey Hepburn reminds us, "Paris is always a good idea," then Paris at Christmas is an even better one! Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb take full advantage of the possibilities in LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS: A Novel of World War I, out today from William Morrow. In this co-written epistolary novel, Londoners Evelyn Elliott and Tom Harding, separated by the hardships and horrors of the Great War, hold fast to their dream of reuniting in Paris to celebrate Christmas at war's end. As their comfortable world crumbles around them, the pair searches valiantly for meaning in the chaos--meaning that comes, necessarily and irrevocably, to include the other. Their letters, begun as a cordial exchange between friends, document the deepening of the couple's attachment as it shapes and informs their personal journeys of self-discovery.

The strength of LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS lies in the distinctiveness of its voices. In crafting the novel as a team, each author adopted one protagonist as her own. Gaynor wrote as Evie, a young society girl who yearns to do more for the war effort than pour tea and knit socks. Webb wrote as Tom, Evie's brother's best friend, a dreamy academic more than happy to leave the oversight of the family newspaper to others. This strategy results in two voices that sound genuinely different and remain engagingly fresh the length of the novel. The letters read as true responses one to the next, the heartfelt testimony of characters striving to make sense of upheaval. Sprinkled among them are telegrams, reproduced on a gray background suggestive of crinkled paper--a design detail that visually contributes to the communications' aura of authenticity. Occassional letters between the protagonists and secondary characters round the correspondence into a convincing, compelling narrative, one that smoothly and successfully blends the creative input of two gifted storytellers into a harmonious whole.

Evie and Tom, rather stereotypical upper-crust British twenty-somethings at the outset of the novel, quickly belie conventional depiction. Dashing, patriotic Tom, eager to defeat the Germans and return home by Christmas, winds up shattered and suffering, his mental health compromised by trauma. As he becomes dangerously withdrawn, sheltered Evie finds her voice as a newspaper columnist, documenting the war from a woman's perspective. Convinced journalism must serve truth, she exposes the lies and misinformation behind official propaganda. This subtle role reversal adds an intriguing angle to the dynamics of the love relationship. Each character, supported and challenged by the other, breaks free of old habits and ways of thinking to forge a new role in a suddenly unfamiliar world. The love story resonates on the broader level of a society forced to rethink itself as it rises from the ruins of the past to confront an uncertain future.

Yet despite its larger resonances, the authors never stray far from the novel's central question: Will Evie and Tom weather separation and hardship to enjoy the happiness they realize can be found only in the other? Obstacles and misunderstandings abound, keeping the reader on tenterhooks until the last satisfying page. Like the birds Evie sketches on her letters to Tom, LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS sings and soars as it unabashedly affirms the power of love to dispel the shadows of a dark and threatening world.

Read a sample of LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS here.
LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS is best-selling author Hazel Gaynor's fifth published novel and Heather Webb's third. Click on their names to visit their websites and learn more about the authors and their books.