The Sixth-Avery Hays
Welcome to the gaslit, cobblestoned streets of Paris, 1910. Florbela Sarmentos, 21, knows what she wants: art, romance, and to free her father from the prison of Portugal's despotic King Manuel II. Born in Lisbon, educated in London and at a painting academy in Cherbourg, France, the cosmopolitan Florbela moves to Paris and takes up residence in the wildly bohemian enclave of La Ruche, there to pursue a creative life. Some of the yet-to-be-discovered artists living in her building are Diego Rivera, Amedeo Modigliani and Marc Chagall. By day she paints, and by night she attends parties with the residents of La Ruche, who introduce her to collectors and creative spirits in Paris's fabled Sixth Arrondissement. Along the way, Florbela attracts several hot-headed admirers, two of whom become so inflamed with jealousy that they become each other's deadly enemies
Ok, usually I do not have patience for books reveling in the Parisian bohemian scene mainly because it all always seems too idealized for words-careful constructions of a myth of an artistic lifestyle and a harkening to a golden age. However, Hays really recreates this (still mythical) world in lush, lovely detail. Perhaps it's that even as the protagonist meets all the major artists of the 1910s (Marc Chagall, Diego Rivera, etc), she is not a 'Mary Sue'-she is not magically also an amazing artist. (Though as a side gripe: how come in such books, people arrive in a new city and immediately know where to get their art supplies? I've been in Salonika for two months (and I've been here before) and I'm still looking for linoleum.) Perhaps, it's the small sub(?)-plot of the overthrow of King Manuel II that Florbela is involved in that tempers the idealist leanings of Paris. I don't know how Hays managed it but I enjoyed the recreation of a period where idealists could be communist and revolution seemed around the corner and the prose conveyed an enthralling and seductive optimism that suspended my usually cynical nature. I really enjoyed the larger than life characters traipsing through Florbela's studio.
Florbela is both a rational and warm character who is easy to like (and thus the legion of suitors is not strange seeming). Her stubborness to pursue the life she chooses is quite modern but she also shoulders her responsibilities (to her imprisoned father) in a timeless self-sacrifice as necessary. The Portuguese and Parisian plotlines dance each other becoming more or less important with physical proximity so that if Florbela's in Paris, it's Paris you're in and vice versa (though Portugal is not as well realized). The thriller aspect is light and subtle until the climax of the novel which makes it seem even more thriller-like by contrast. A pleasurable read.