The acclaimed author of Letters from Skye returns with an extraordinary story of a friendship born of proximity but boundless in the face of separation and war.
Luc Crépet is accustomed to his mother’s bringing wounded creatures to their idyllic château in the French countryside, where healing comes naturally amid the lush wildflowers and crumbling stone walls. Yet his maman’s newest project is the most surprising: a fifteen-year-old Scottish girl grieving over her parents’ fate. A curious child with an artistic soul, Clare Ross finds solace in her connection to Luc, and she in turn inspires him in ways he never thought possible. Then, just as suddenly as Clare arrives, she is gone, whisked away by her grandfather to the farthest reaches of the globe. Devastated by her departure, Luc begins to write letters to Clare—and, even as she moves from Portugal to Africa and beyond, the memory of the summer they shared keeps her grounded.
Years later, in the wake of World War I, Clare, now an artist, returns to France to help create facial prostheses for wounded soldiers. One of the wary veterans who comes to the studio seems familiar, and as his mask takes shape beneath her fingers, she recognizes Luc. But is this soldier, made bitter by battle and betrayal, the same boy who once wrote her wistful letters from Paris? After war and so many years apart, can Clare and Luc recapture how they felt at the edge of that long-ago summer?
Bringing to life two unforgettable characters and the rich historical period they inhabit, Jessica Brockmole shows how love and forgiveness can redeem us.
Praise for Jessica Brockmole’s Letters From Skye
“A remarkable story of two women, their loves, their secrets, and two world wars [in which] the beauty of Scotland, the tragedy of war, the longings of the heart, and the struggles of a family torn apart by disloyalty are brilliantly drawn.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Tantalizing . . . sure to please readers who enjoyed other epistolary novels like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.”—Stratford Gazette
“An absorbing and rewarding saga of loss and discovery.”—Kate Alcott, author of The Dressmaker
“A sweeping and sweet (but not saccharine) love story.”—USA Today
“[A] dazzling little jewel.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch
“A captivating love story that celebrates the power of hope.”—Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of The Language of Flowers
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Jessica Brockmole is the author of the internationally bestselling Letters from Skye, which was named one of the best books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly, and Something Worth Landing For, a novella featured in Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War. She lives in northern Indiana with her husband, two children, and far too many books.
Read an Excerpt
The colors in France were all wrong.
I was used to the grays of Scotland. The granite blocks of Fairbridge, the leaden sky, the misty rain, the straight stone walls bisecting fields. Even the steel of Father’s eyes.
Scotland wasn’t all gray, of course. In summer, the hills of Perthshire were muted green, in the spring flecked with the yellow-brown of gorse, and in the autumn, brown. But washed over all of it, gray. It was the color I knew best.
Lately, though, I saw more black than anything. It was draped on our front doorknob, it edged my handkerchiefs, it hung in my wardrobe in a modest row of new dresses. Six weeks of mourning black. Six weeks of sympathetic looks, of waxy pale lilies, of whispered conversations about what was to be done with me. But then Madame Crépet swept into the house, smelling of violets in a dress the color of honeycomb, and set about straightening things. The household was too happy to leave me in her hands. They didn’t know what to do with me anyway. As soon as Madame had my new black dresses packed up, we left for France.
Right away, France was too bright. From the blue-green of the Channel lapping the edges of Calais, past orange-roofed houses and yellow rapeseed fields, all the way to a château rising up white in a jewel green lawn. An automobile brought us down a slash of a burnt sienna drive, past golden-blossomed lindens and sprinkles of violets. Madame Crépet leaned over to me and said, “Welcome to Mille Mots, Clare.”
The people waiting in front were no different. Two young girls were introduced as maids, though they wore green flowered dresses instead of dark broadcloth. The butler had a great drooping orange mustache. The cook had her hair tied up in a paisley scarf. I heard the whispered buzz of French and was suddenly afraid to step from the car.
But then Madame Crépet took my hand. “It’s your home for as long as you need, ma chère.” Her words brought a lump to my throat and I swallowed it down. She slid off the lap shawl. “Are you ready?”
Was I? I didn’t know. A week ago I’d been back at Fairbridge, in the same square parcel of Scotland I’d spent the past fifteen years. I left with Madame Crépet, thinking I was setting off on an adventure. I forgot that polite, well-bred girls weren’t supposed to have adventures.
My head ached with the color and the light and the unfamiliar words my ears strained to catch. The air smelt like roses—heady, drowsy roses. Wasn’t it too early for them to be in bloom? A man approached the car, in a waistcoat speckled blue like a raven’s egg. He smiled widely and held out both hands.
“Can it be the petite princesse? I remember you, only as high as my knee and charming us all with your smile.” He spoke English casually, Glaswegian vowels slipping in and out of his French accent. “Do you not remember me?”
It was an unfair question. Knee-high, I hadn’t noticed much beyond the nursery. I stepped down from the automobile and regarded the man beneath the brim of my boater. He had a soft brown beard curling over his cravat and eyes dark as currants. Maybe I did remember him.
“Monsieur Crépet, is it?”
His grin broadened. “Oui!” He took both of my hands in his. “Mademoiselle, welcome to my Picardy.” He leaned forward and deposited a tickly kiss on each of my cheeks. Father always smelt of Rowland’s Macassar Oil and the faint wood of pencil shavings, but as Monsieur Crépet leaned close, I smelt coffee and garlic, turpentine and tobacco. His cravat was spattered with green and yellow paint.
“Your Picardy?” I asked.
Madame Crépet linked her arm through her husband’s. “Cher Claude, he’d lay claim to all the most beautiful parts of France if he could.”
“Only long enough to paint them,” he said with a kiss to the back of her hand, one that sent her blushing like a schoolgirl.
“And you’ll meet the last of our family tomorrow,” Madame said. “Our petit Luc, he’ll be home from school. You probably don’t remember him either.”
Madame came to visit us in Perthshire each spring, staying for two weeks at Fairbridge, in the rose moiré guest suite. Only once do I remember her bringing her family along. I’d forgotten that she had a son.
A mottled cat streaked out from the open front door, followed closely by a dog. The pair darted between legs before tearing off across the lawn. A maid yelped and jumped aside, Madame laughed, and the butler dropped his spectacles with what I was sure was a French curse.
Suddenly I was exhausted. Everything here was too bright, too loud, too different. I pressed my hands against the scratchy crepe of my skirt. In front of this aching white château, I was the only spot of black.
The bedroom was a quiet, faded blue.
The room was perched up at the top of a tower. Round stone walls were hung over with drooping tapestries that looked as though they’d been there since Louis XVI; dusty, pastoral scenes of sheep and boys and overdressed shepherdesses. In the center of the room was an ancient bed, a heavy four-posted affair draped all around with curtains. It sagged in the middle and was piled with azure and lace and far too many pillows, but it was clean. I dropped my valise onto the bed and wished I was alone.
But the Crépets lingered, Madame fussing with the towel on the mismatched washstand and Monsieur adjusting the most crooked of the tapestries.
“I’ll send Yvette up to unpack your trunk,” she said.
Monsieur Crépet let go of the tapestry. “Rowena, I’m sure the child wishes to rest.”
“Of course, of course.” She rubbed her hands together. “And supper . . . should I send up a tray?”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
As they left the room, Madame paused in the doorway. “I hope you will regard Mille Mots as your home as long as you need to, my child. Your parents were dear friends and we mourn with you.”
“Thank you, but I’ll only be staying until you can find my mother.”
Madame and Monsieur exchanged glances, the same kind that grown-ups had been exchanging over my head for the past six weeks.
“Father always said she’d return for me.” There was that lump again in my throat, one I’d been carrying around since the night he died.
Madame hesitated, so it was Monsieur who finally said, “I’m sure she will.”
When the door closed behind them, I fell onto the bed and wept.
Later that night, I woke grainy-eyed. A candle burnt low on the dressing table, next to a supper tray. I rubbed at my eyes with a wrinkled sleeve and pulled myself up from the bed. The tray held some slices of cold roasted duck, flecked with herbs and black pepper, a crusty chunk of bread, and some kind of soft, pungent cheese. Miss May, my governess, always said that pepper excessively aroused the constitution. I ate the bread in small torn bites and left the rest.
As I chewed, I went to the window and pushed it open. I wondered how late it was. Stars sprinkled across a sky as black as the one I’d known in Scotland. Maybe France wasn’t so different after all. In the dark, it didn’t look as intimidating.
After Mother left, I used to slip from my bedroom onto the roof of Fairbridge, to look off across the night sky and wonder where she was. One night, I found my father while I was out on the roof.
He was in a rumpled cardigan and slippers, his hair uncombed. He leaned out of his own window, eyes fixed on the dark sky, the way mine were every night. I thought to creep back into my room, but without turning his head, he said, “Do you know the constellations?”
I stayed where I was, knees drawn up under my nightgown. “No, sir.”
He drew in a breath. “That there, that’s Pegasus.” He pointed up at a faint collection of stars. “Do you see? Look, there are his forelegs. That rectangle is his body. And straight on that way is his neck and head.” He traced shapes with his finger, shapes that I couldn’t see but trusted were there.
I scooted closer. “And what else?”
“There, next to Pegasus is Perseus, with his sword. There, and there.”
I didn’t want him to go inside and end this quiet conversation, the most I’d had with him in a long while. “I like the constellations.”
“I do too.” He sighed, a puff of frost in the dark night. “The world may come and go, but the stars always stay the same.”
I thought of that now, leaning out of the tower window of Mille Mots. Much of my little world had changed. I’d lost the only person I had left. I’d left Scotland. And yet, here in this strange château in this strange country, the constellations were still spread about above, keeping their stories for always.
Somewhere below my window, someone turned on a gramophone. I didn’t recognize the music—something lively and quick on a piano—but a weight lifted in my heart.
“Good night, Father,” I whispered up to the stars, and crawled into bed with the gramophone music at the edge of my sleep.
The next morning, my growling stomach woke me up. Sunlight pushed against the corners of the bed curtains. France was still as bright as yesterday. I sat up. My dress was wrinkled and spotted with crumbs from last night’s almost-meal. My impolite stomach informed me that it hadn’t been enough.
I washed up and waited, but no one came to dress me or do my hair. No one brought a fresh tray. Maybe I was meant to dress myself and go down to the dining room. Did the French eat porridge for breakfast? I didn’t know. They probably ate strange things like I’d been given last night. My stomach growled again.
Somewhere outside my window there was a rhythmic thumping. I pictured woodsmen with axes, like in fairy tales, I pictured giants with butter churns, I pictured marching soldiers. I leaned out over the windowsill and looked for the sound, but all I could see was green lawn, tangled roses, and the mossy slate of the château’s roof.
I took off my crumpled dress and all of my underthings. My trunk had been halfway unpacked at some point while I napped yesterday, maybe by whoever had brought my supper tray. I had to search through the trunk for fresh combinations and petticoats, for new stockings and garters, but those hateful black dresses of mine hung in a row in the crooked wardrobe.
I’d had six weeks of black. I’d had a lifetime of gray. In France, the palette was much bigger than that. The colors I’d seen since arriving, they were ones I’d only ever read on the unused tubes in Mother’s paint box. Maybe that’s why they overwhelmed me. I’d never even seen them splashed across a canvas. But to see the ultramarines and viridians and carmines painted across a country, across a house, across people, I wondered. Did people feel the same when their lives were as bright as a painting? Could they mourn and wish and hate and dream when their days glowed with color? I thought again of the gramophone music drifting up through my window last night, those exuberant trips and trills of the piano. Here, so far from Scotland, so far from the life I’d always had, could I be different, too? I shut the wardrobe and opened my valise.
The dress in there wasn’t black and it wasn’t new. It was an old dress of Mother’s, a tea dress already five years out of fashion when she left it behind at Fairbridge. It had a pouty bodice, a froth of a skirt, and sleeves ending at my elbows in tiny pearl buttons. It was utterly romantic and as green as the Scottish hills in springtime. I’d cut it down and basted it with my embroidery needles when Miss May wasn’t looking. It wasn’t stiff crepe, it wasn’t mourning black, it wasn’t sedate as schoolrooms. It was just the different I needed.
I slipped into the green dress. It felt faintly rebellious, to be putting on a color only six weeks into mourning. Miss May, that old Victorian relic, would faint at the thought. But she wasn’t here. Madame Crépet, with her honeycomb yellow dress, Monsieur with his paint-spattered coat, and Mille Mots, so white and green and twined with flowers, they were here, and I meant to be part of them. I sent a quick, guilty prayer up to Father, hoping he’d forgive me.
I finger-combed my hair back and regarded myself in the mirror. I wondered if I looked older. I wondered if I looked like a little girl playing dress-up. I supposed there was only one way to find out.
The rest of Mille Mots was as shabby as my bedroom. The hallways were lined with peeling wallpaper and mismatched furniture. Here and there, on scuffed tables, perched sculptures, some grotesque in their subjects, some heartrendingly beautiful. I found a staircase carpeted in a faded green runner that led down to the front hall I remembered from yesterday, all pale stone and dark wood and a cacophony of paintings. I hadn’t been given a proper tour. I wasn’t sure which way to the breakfast room.
As I was standing in the hall, contemplating four equally quiet doorways leading to places unknown, the front opened with a bang. A boy entered, whistling and swinging a tennis racket. It barely missed me.
I ducked. “Blast, but France is a dangerous place!”
The boy broke off with his whistling and stared.
He wasn’t exactly a boy, I realized upon second glance. He was fully a head taller than me. Fresh from his exercise—his dark hair damp and curling, his shirt spotted with sweat, his face pink from exertion—he looked a man.
“Pardon,” I said, and stepped back against the wall.
He tilted his head. I didn’t know who he was to stare. He wasn’t dressed like a gentleman at sport. Father always wore a jacket, even when playing croquet. I felt a pang thinking of Father, always respectable. But this man wore neither jacket nor vest. Just a white shirt, open at the neck, tucked into loose trousers. Like a pirate, he’d tied a crimson scarf around his waist.
My face burned under his scrutiny and I looked down at the toes of my boots.
“But you’re right, of course. France is a dangerous place.” I looked up to see his eyes twinkling. He brandished his racket like a fencing sword. “It is a country of the three musketeers, of the guillotine, of opera ghosts. But it’s also a place of art and of love.”
“We have art in Scotland,” I said, a trifle defensively.
“Ah, are you an artist, mademoiselle?”
“I’m only fifteen.”
“And I’m nineteen, but what does that matter?”
Maybe he’d understand about the scores of sketchbooks in my valise. “Are you then?”
“I sketch Paris for tourists. Amongst other things.”