The French Gift: A Novel of World War II Paris

Written by Kirsty Manning
Review by Jackie Drohan

This multi-period historical mystery centers on the relationship of a famous French author and resistance fighter, Joséphine Murant, and Margot Bisset, a housemaid convicted of murder and Joséphine’s friend and one-time cellmate.  In the present, Evie Black, wife of Joséphine’s deceased grandnephew, with the help of attractive young scholar Dr. Clément Tazi, seeks to unravel the mystery behind the now-late author’s last, unpublished manuscript, and its possible wartime secrets.

Betrayed to the Gestapo by a handsome stranger in 1940, young Joséphine is taken on a bewildering journey into the French penal system and German work camp system. Only the friendship and support of her companion, Margot, help her survive.

The timeline is complex. Overlaid with epistolary, the elaborate style seems at times to obfuscate the somewhat simpler narrative but still remains lively and readable. The writing features vivid, omni-sensory touches of French cultural color, and even supporting characters are multi-dimensional and relatable. Evie’s teenage son Hugo and friends Nina and Camille; Margot’s extravagantly wealthy employer Tilly Munro; the Laurent couple, caretakers at Joséphine’s Villa Sanary on the Côte d’Azur; Joséphine’s urbane prior life in Montmartre—all form part of the novel’s mood and highly sensitive tapestry. While the settings are opulent, ranging from Evie’s present-day “botanical book store” in Paris to the extravagant pre-war lifestyle of the international glitterati on the southern coast, France is more than a backdrop, as the almost schizophrenic relationship of wartime civil authority with the German occupiers is capably represented.

Like many contemporary novels about WWII, moral conflict and ambiguity play a pivotal role. Among the outright human monsters the women are exposed to are Nazis who seem to bristle against the immorality and ultimate futility of their cause.

While the plot holds few twists to justify its level of mystery, the novel is an enjoyable read for fans of the era.