Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 1 September 2021)
Length: 452 pages
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
Bestselling Australian author Natasha Lester returns with a powerful and intense historical drama that presents a multigenerational tale of love, loss, culture, and the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France, in The Riviera House.
Paris, 1939. With the war about to start and fears of a Nazi invasion becoming more apparent, Éliane Dufort, a young art student who works part time at the Louvre, watches the staff store away the gallery’s most expensive artworks and begin to hide them throughout France. Determined to survive the upcoming war, the last thing Éliane should have done was fall in love, however when she meets one of her brother’s friends, Xavier, she cannot help herself, and they soon begin a whirlwind romance. However, with the Nazis right outside of Paris, Xavier leaves for England, breaking her heart.
With Xavier gone and most of her family killed by the Nazis as they tried to flee the city, Éliane vows to fight the invaders by any means necessary. Her connection to the Louvre lands her a job working for the enemy in the vast warehouse the Nazis are using to store the artwork looted from France. Working with the legendary Rose Valland, Éliane is tasked with recording every single piece of art that the Germans steal, as well as attempting to discover where they are being sent. However, Éliane soon gains the unfortunate romantic attention of a powerful Nazi officer, while a returning Xavier, now a treacherous art expert working for Hermann Göring, threatens to destroy her cover.
Many years later, vintage fashion expert Remy Lang travels to the French Riviera and arrives at a beautiful house that was part of a mysterious inheritance from her unknown biological parents. Hoping to escape from her intense grief at the loss of her husband and child, Remy soon becomes involved with a visiting family living at the neighbouring villa, including charming photographer Adam. As she attempts to understand her feelings for Adam amidst her sorrow, Remy soon stumbles upon a shocking mystery when she chances upon a catalogue detailing artworks stolen from France during the war, which includes a painting that hung in her bedroom as a child. Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, Remy attempts to trace her past and the history of the unexplained painting. But the story she uncovers is one of great tragedy and shocking revelations that will change everything Remy thought she knew about her past.
This was an outstanding and deeply impressive historical drama from Natasha Lester, who has previously written some great historical dramas, such as The Paris Secret and The French Photographer. The Riviera House is a particularly compelling and intense novel that perfectly brings two separate timelines together into one moving narrative, while also focusing on two distinctive and complex groups of characters. This results in a brilliant and moving read that is guaranteed to haunt you long after you finish reading.
Lester tells a deep and captivating tale in this novel that is moving, intense and very addictive to behold. The author utilises a split timeline throughout The Riviera House, with one storyline set during World War II in Paris, while the other is based in the modern day and takes place in several locations, although primarily in the French Riviera. The book jumps back and forth between these two timelines, with the speed of transition increasing the closer it gets to the conclusion. Both storylines contain their own plot, characters, and interesting features, and they come together to form quite an intense overarching narrative.
The first storyline of The Riviera House is the World War II storyline, which follows the character of Éliane Dufort. Éliane, after suffering several great losses because of the Nazi invasion, becomes embroiled with the French Resistance and soon gets a job working for the Nazis, assisting in their loot warehouse, and helping historical figure Rose Valland create her record of stolen works. However, the story gets increasingly complicated as the book progresses, with Éliane torn between her remaining family, her love/hate relationship with the traitor Xavier, and her forced relationship with a powerful Nazi member who has fallen for her. The entire story comes to a head in the closing days of the Nazi occupation, when Éliane is forced to risk everything dear to her, and soon encounters just how tragic the war is and how evil people can be, even those closest to you.
This part of The Riviera House is an amazing bit of historical fiction, exploring the history of the time while also featuring an emotional and moving tale of love, hope and courage. I really connected with this half of the novel, due to the thrilling and intense story that shows a grim picture of the period and featuring some memorable moments. The story of Éliane and her family is full of tragedy and suspense, and if you are looking for a happy read than you have come to the wrong place. While I did see most of the major twists coming, I appreciated how this narrative came together, as well as the clever way it led into The Riviera House’s other timeline. I also deeply enjoyed the unique historical aspects of this novel, particularly around the Nazis’ systematic looting of French art. Lester really dove into this part of the war, providing a detailed account how the Germans stole the art, stored it, and eventually shipped it away as the war progressed. This tale features several real-life historical figures who are worked into the plot extremely well and who add an extra layer of authenticity to the tale. One of the most interesting historical figures is Rose Valland, the courageous art historian who risked everything to pull together a record of the looted artwork. Valland, who has inspired characters in films such as The Train or The Monuments Men, was a fascinating character in this novel, and I liked how Lester tied Éliane’s story into that of Valland. I felt that this examination of the Nazi art theft was both fascinating and cleverly utilised, and it helped to provide some extra power and intensity to the novel.
The other timeline in The Riviera House is based in modern times and follows Remy Lang, a fashion figure who is spending time in the French Riviera, trying to escape her grief over the tragic death of her husband and child, and soon meets some new people who help her move on. This storyline was more of a pure dramatic tale and focuses on Remy’s grief, her new romance, and the friction brewing between the family she has just met. I got quite attached to the potent emotional elements featured in this book, especially as Lester really focuses on the lingering impacts of grief, such as the guilt survivors feel when thinking about something new or considering moving on. Add in quite a compelling mystery element to it, as Remy and her new friend Adam start investigating the connection that Remy had to the other story, such as her long-dead biological parents and several mysterious inheritances. These connections to the storyline set in the past compliment the protagonist’s current issues and concerns extremely well, and it was really fascinating to see her work out how her life was shaped by the original protagonists many years before.
I ended up really liking both timelines within the novel, although I did prefer the storyline set in World War II due to its interesting historical research, complex characters riven by war, and terrible tragic moments. I must admit that I am not usually the biggest fan of historical dramas that feature two separate timelines (it really is an overused device in historical dramas). However, I think that it was utilised extremely well in The Riviera House, and the two separate storylines melded together into a fantastic overarching read. I loved how Lester was able to provide subtle hints about the fate of the historical protagonists in the contemporary storylines, although the full revelations about them was often hidden and not revealed until later. I also really appreciated finding out how the events of the World War II story led into the later plot, and the full truth about how everything occurred is not only great to behold in the historical storyline, but it also has some major impacts on the modern-day protagonist. This really enhanced The Riviera House’s plot and the overall drama of the book, and it helped to produce an excellent overall narrative.
I also quickly wanted to highlight some of the cool and fascinating cultural elements that Lester slipped into her novel, particularly around art and fashion. I already mentioned how much I enjoyed the interesting and in-depth examination of the Nazis’ looting and the plans to stop them, however, I also appreciated the way in which Lester examined the art itself, as well as the people who were fighting to protect it. You really get a sense of the beauty and subtlety of the different artworks featured throughout the book, but more than that you also get to explore what makes people passionate for art. This book contains several characters who appreciated the true value that this art had to themselves and the nation, so much so that they were willing to risk their lives for it. This forms a major part of the historical storyline’s plot, and I think that Lester did a wonderful job exploring it. In addition, the contemporary storyline features a compelling examination about the appeals of vintage fashion. Lester, who has previously explored fashion in some of her past novels (for example, a major part of her previous novel, The Paris Secret, revolves around vintage gowns), did a good job explaining the current obsession with vintage fashion, as well as how people can make money off it. While I usually care very little about any sort of clothing fashion, Lester’s descriptions proved to be very intriguing, and I found myself appreciating her obvious passion for the subject. Both these cultural inclusions enhanced the story, especially as they were strongly related to the various protagonist’s motivations and obsessions, and I really appreciated they time that Lester took to feature them.
Overall, I felt that The Riviera House by Natasha Lester was an excellent and well-crafted historical drama with some powerful elements to it. Lester did a wonderful job of crafting a compelling, multi-period storylines that combined historical and contemporary narratives into a single, moving tale. I particularly enjoyed the cool focus on the Nazi occupation and art obsession, which resulted in a thrilling and very tragic tale. The Riviera House is a highly recommended book and a must-read for all fans of historical drama.