It's 1909 and Guillerme du Frere is leaving the provincial town of Bordeaux to travel to Paris to work on the railways. At the same time, in 1988 PhD candidate Padra Stevenson is struggling to cope with her grandfather's death. She is also gravely worried, because when clearing out his effects she found an old photo of her grandfather with two other people, with "Claremont" and "Forgive me" written on the back. What did her lovely, kind and brilliant grandfather do in early 20th Century Paris that he needed to ask for forgiveness so blankly?
Guillerme steps off the train from Bordeaux onto a crowed platform in Paris. He is swept away by the crowd and bumps into a beautiful wealthy woman, knocking them both to their feet. Before he can speak, she is pulled to her feet and away, but he remembers her ice-blue eyes. His new job soon dominates his everyday life but, after receiving his first pay packet, he and his workmates go out on the town. After (unknowingly) trying opium for the first time, Gui wakes up in a gutter, with his pockets completely empty. Trying to find help he wanders down an alley, bumping into delivery men delivering sugar and flour to one of the favourite locations of Paris' wealthy: Cremont's Patisserie. To his surprise, standing there with a clipboard monitoring the deliveries is none other than the beautiful woman from the train platform, Jeanne Clermont. The delivery men want to chase him away but seeing the state he is in, she allows him to sit quietly and drink chocolate chaud until he is feeling better. To show his thanks, he agrees to return the following weekend to help with deliveries. From there, his relationship with Jeanne and Clermont's develops.
Back in the 1980s, Padra is not having a good time. She is very behind on her PhD thesis and has been placed on academic probation. Even though she knows she should be working on her thesis, she can't stop thinking about her grandfather's life in Paris and what he did that he was so sorry for. To make matters worse, another scholar is writing a biography of her grandfather and has promised to expose his scandalous secret. Petra is terrified that her grandfather's reputation will be tarnished for the sake of a publishing success. Helped by her friends and supervisor, she starts an investigative race with the would-be biographer to find out her grandfather's secret before he does and, hopefully, also find her place in the world.
The book alternates chapters from Guillerme and Padra. This is the second book I've read with this structure in a month (the last one being The Girl in the Photograph) and, as with that book, I much preferred the story set in the past than the more recent one. Madeleine very effectively paints a picture of Paris just after the turn of the century: the poverty living alongside the wealth; the seediness of the brothels and dancing girls; and the feeling of falling in love. As a postgraduate student, I really understood how Padra feels - the vague sense of panic every time someone brings up your thesis and the constant feeling that you should always be writing. I also loved the 80s touches - typewriters and fax machines and rotary telephones. However, the 80s is just not as fun as fin-de-siecle France!
To me, The Confectioner's Tale felt like a movie. The plot was simple and direct, the secondary characters had no inner life of their own and existed only to help the protagonists and the resolution was obvious but very satisfying. This is not a problem - I love movies! But, although it is very well told and engaging, there is not a lot of depth to this story. I actually kind of hope someone does makes a film of this book because it would be gorgeous, sumptuous and lovely to behold. Three and a half stars.