The protagonist, Maud Heighton, is a middle-class Englishwoman, determined to continue with her study of art, even if she has to go hungry during another Paris winter.
We are given glimpses of the desperation she must have endured the previous winter when “she had been feeding herself too little, been too wary of lighting the fire when the damp crawled off the river” and her illness “had swallowed francs by the fistful.”
When Tanya (Tatiana Sergeyevna Koltsova), a rich and beautiful Russian classmate, invites her to take a stroll, Maud feels the first “curl of hope in her belly under the hunger.”
Tanya and Yvette, one of the life models, introduce Maud to a part-time position as a live-in lady’s companion. Maud’s health improves and she becomes a better artist—her lines are more confident and her use of color grows bolder. Maud is finally able to hold her head up high as she walks from the Rue de Seine to her classes.
This honeymoon period abruptly ends as the narrative takes a dark turn and meanders through an underworld filled with opium, diamonds, murder and revenge.
Different aspects of the three young women emerge as they experience the salons, slums, and sewers of the city during the Great Paris Flood of 1910.
Maud can no longer hide a strong fighting spirit behind her English manners. As artist Suzanne Valadon points out: “I’ve seen you sleeping with your jaw clenched so tight the muscles on your neck stand out and your fists pulling the sheets apart.”
Beautiful and spoiled Tania finally stands up to her chaperones, firmly stating her intention to modernize and carve a different path.
And most surprising of all, Yvette, a child of the streets, redefines what it means to be a guardian angel: “The whole point of a guardian angel was that they were with you whether you deserved it or not, that they stayed with you, that even if they could not save you, they were there.”
Imogen Robertson has written a dark and intriguing historical novel about a different Paris, one not so romantic or enchanting.