An Underground Threat: Robards’ Dramatic Use of Subplot in The Black Swan of Paris


There is no lack of action in a novel set during Nazi-occupied Paris. Karen Robards’ new novel, The Black Swan of Paris, has ample swash-buckling and high stakes musical entertainment. But underneath all of the glitz and seat-edge sitting, there is a soft, dark, quiet subplot that gives this historical thriller depth.

At a technical level, the subplot is difficult to master. It cannot detract or be confused with the main plot (a Nazi darling entertainer who is actually working for the French Resistance!), but it must also have a reason to be there. The resolution of the subplot must tie into the main narrative arc in order to serve the story, but it also must aid and bolster the existing characters and setting. In the best cases, the subplot is not only a contrasting texture in the fabric of the story, but also works metaphorical magic to extend the ideas presented in the main story.

The Black Swan of Paris explores themes of motherhood, defiance, self-reliance, and betrayal. The main action is a swift ride with heart-pounding action, and thus the contrasting subplot is about mushrooms. Because what better contrast is there to the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied Paris than the sleepy cultivation of mushrooms in rural France? “While researching The Black Swan of Paris,” Karen Robards says, “I came across Les Caves des Roches, or the mushroom caves of Northern France and the Loire Valley. During World War II, the Germans conscripted many of these caves to store deadly V-1 flying bombs. But a few remained in private hands, and their owners or those who had access to them used them for many things, including actually growing mushrooms, which were desperately needed in a time of such severe food shortages.”

The story revolves around an entertainer, Genevieve, with a secret past that she shares with no one. She suspects that her manager is using her to aid the French Resistance, but she has no proof. When she discovers she is correct, and that her estranged parents are involved in the Resistance, her world changes, and she must re-examine her past in order to make sense of her commitment to rid France of the Nazi occupation.

“My heroine, Genevieve, the titular Black Swan,” Robards tells me, “grew up in the Loire Valley at the magnificent Chateau Rocheford. At the time the story opens, Genevieve has been estranged for many years from her mother, Baroness Lillian de Rocheford and her sister, Emmy Granville. I wanted to deepen Lillian’s character while at the same time provide an interest that Lillian and Genevieve shared and that Emmy, the favorite daughter, wanted no part of. I also needed both Genevieve and Lillian to have intimate knowledge of the dangerous marshes in that area.”

When Genevieve returns to her ancestral home, Nazis have occupied the chateau, so she hides from the soldiers, ducking into her mother Lillian’s mushroom cave. This gives the opportunity to explore the family dynamic when Genevieve was younger, as well as allowing Genevieve to meet the remnants of the local Resistance cell, pushing the main plot forward. At first, this is the deceptive feint of a quality subplot. By visiting the cave, Genevieve remembers the closeness of her family, needling the feelings of betrayal that urged her to sever ties long before the Nazis came onto the world stage. Yet it also provides a supporting opportunity to move the main plot forward—Genevieve meets the Resistance fighters there. The subplot never detracts from the main narrative arc, and in fact, propels it.

Soon, Genevieve finds her estranged sister, and they begin to talk of their parents and their past. More backstory unfolds and the mushrooms are obliquely mentioned once again, this time in a more threatening manner. Not all mushrooms are meant to be consumed by humans. Quietly, the mushrooms let the rest of the explosive main plot unfold, lurking in the background.

This mushroom subplot works on multiple levels. It provides a space to explore backstory, which is notoriously difficult to fit in without the expository dump. It also provides the depth of supporting characters. As Robards notes, “Keeping in mind that each character is the hero or heroine of his or her own story and that subplots exist to serve the main plot…I wanted Lillian to have agency, to have a way to protect her family and contribute to the Resistance that did not depend on her husband or daughters and was uniquely hers. The mushrooms and the mushroom cave filled the bill on all counts, while adding richness and color to the story.”

In a more subtle manner, the mushroom subplot gives contrasting texture. The description of the cave is dark, quiet, and pungent—the exact opposite of Genevieve’s experience as an entertainer. Her life is on stage: hot lights, crowded with stagehands, a company of dancers, high-ranking Nazi admirers. Genevieve has no privacy, and every step is scripted by her manager. Her escape to the mushroom cave allows the reader to take a breath in the high-tension stakes that ratchet tighter and tighter as the novel goes on.

And finally, this subplot works on a metaphorical level. The French Resistance is “underground.” Mushrooms are cultivated underground, and Genevieve must go underground in order to forgive herself and her family for the pain of the past. Larger than that, the mushrooms are quiet and unassuming, just as Genevieve, her sister, and her mother, are dismissed as unthreatening because of their gender. Yet, all three women use their positions to help those they love by fighting the way they know how.

As Genevieve, the Black Swan, would tell you, it isn’t the mushroom itself that is effective, it’s how you use it. Your subplot can be anything, as long as it is wielded correctly to amplify the other elements of your story.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Katie Stine writes Feminist Regency Pugilist romances under the name Edie Cay. A Lady’s Revenge is a finalist in the Golden Leaf’s Best First Book Award. The Boxer and The Blacksmith is due out in Feb 2021. She is a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 94 (November 2020)

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