Book Review: To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin

Émile looked out over the city, at the river way below, strapped down by its bridges and edged with bright green like verdant lace around a wrist. It was for this the tower was being built, to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution, to gift the idea of the city to the people of Paris, for as far as they could see in all directions. While life down there was chaotic, nonsensical, frustrating, up here you couldn’t smell the sewers of the sweet stink of horse manure, up here you could rise above it all, up here you could see the world unfold below, everything in its place, everything laid out to make some sort of sense.

Supported by the rich history of Paris during the construction of the Eiffel Tower,  To Capture What We Cannot Keep explores the complicated and unlikely relationship between Émile Nouguier and Caitriona Wallace. Émile is the lead engineer for the Eiffel Tower. He is under constant scrutiny for his choice of career and his choice to remain unmarried. Caitriona, or Cait, serves as a guardian to Alice and Jamie Arrol- one of the few acceptable positions for a widow outside only remarriage. Cait and the Arrol’s traveled throughout Europe but their stop in Paris proved to be the most indelible. At the trip’s end, Cait returns to her dreary Glasgow flat where she is assaulted with memories and the reality of her current situation.

Cait stood and listened to the sounds of the house, to the bad-tempered clatter and slap from the kitchen, and the sound of rain on the roof. To be standing alone in the hallway seemed suddenly fitting, a metaphor for who she was, stuck between floors, between rooms, between youth and old age, a person without status, without a husband, without a future. Was this living or merely waiting for the inevitable?

The lure and attraction of Paris is felt in varying degrees by Cait and the Arrol’s. Cait craves escape from her previous life which continues to haunt her and needs redirection. Alice Arrol is desperate to find a man to call her husband and her ambitions and youthful fancy far surpasses her social standing. Jamie seeks the grandeur of success and wealth; to break through the constraints of class. In an attempt to satiate the needs of his niece and nephew William Arrol requests Cait to return to Paris as their chaperone for an extended visit.

Each story-line is fleshed out with immense detail, covering everything from societal expectations in Paris, the struggle between the bourgeois and the bohemian movement, prostitution, ambition, and, most of all, love. Colin provides a unique perspective with the variety of characters and their individuality. Written with both imagination and precision, To Capture What We Cannot Keep is a masterful tale of romance and La Belle Epoque.

They stood side by side in the middle of the old wooden bridge as the brown river water rushed beneath them on its way to the Gambia River and then on to the estuary and the wide-open North Atlantic Ocean.

“I thought I’d never see you again,” she said softly.

“I thought the same. But here I am.”

Read voraciously.

Thoughts? Intrigued, buy the book here:

To Capture What We Cannot Keep
by Terry, Alfred H.
Hardcover
Powells.com

A review copy of this title was provided by Flatiron Books via Netgalley.

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