The Fortune Hunter

Sisi, Empress of Austria, often compared to the late Princess Diana of England, is the9781250043894_p0_v2_s260x420 focus of Daisy Goodwin’s historical fiction The Fortune Hunter.   When I realized this controversial historical figure was the same woman whose elegant posture and heavy hair, crowned with diamonds, graced the museum I had visited in Vienna, I found renewed interest in the tale, despite the sometimes halting period prose. image_Leitartikel-Teaser Goodwin bases her story on real people living during the reign of Franz Joseph in the 1860s, including the hero and namesake of the novel, cavalry officer and horseman, Bay Middleton, who actually “piloted” the empress  through the English hunting seasons for five years.

Goodwin manages a contrived happy ending for all , except the unfulfilled Sisi, who remains one of the most magnetic characters in history.  If you enjoy historical fiction, the novel offers information and a glimpse into the world before World War I, when wealthy women used raw veal for their complexion and royalty, including Queen Victoria, still demanded backing out of a room in deference.

Vienna Nocturne

9780345536372_p0_v1_s260x420Vivien Shotwell’s romantic historical novel – Vienna Nocturne – prompted me to google opera singer Anna Storace to find out just how much of the story was true.  Shotwell does not stray far from the facts, documenting Storace’s frenzied life as a star in the Vienna opera houses among other notable talent of the day, especially Mozart.

The story opens with a young Anna taking lessons from a revered teacher in London, who eventually sends her off to study in Italy.  After she upstages the male star in her debut, Anna performs at La Scala and then in Venice where she is recruited by an Italian count to sing at the  opera house of Emperor Joseph II, and becomes the prima donna of Vienna.  Eventually, she meets Mozart, who helps her through a difficult time when she has lost her voice and inspires him to write the part of Susanna in Figaro for her return to the stage.

Shotwell embellishes Anna’s life with fiction, including affairs with older men, a marriage to hide the scandal of pregnancy, and a daughter who dies soon after birth – even the affair with a married Mozart is undocumented.  Although Anna clearly has a beautiful voice, Shotwell focuses on Storace’s reputation as a lively and convincing character actress on stage – unusual for opera singers of that time – as the catalyst for the imagined storied love life off stage.




Opera House

In describing Emperor Joseph, Shotwell notes he  “had to be kept rich in chocolate drops or he lost his optimism” – I could relate to that – and Shotwell’s version of Anna Storace’s life is full of delicious bonbons, sometimes overly frosted.  By the last chapters, I was skipping over the drawn-out declarations of love.  Nevertheless, her descriptions of Vienna brought back my recent trip and the historical information prompted me to learn more about the musical world of that time.  As a romantic story, frilled with history, Vienna Nocturne is a little over the top, but still an appealing and enjoyable read.


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The Girl You Left Behind

9780670026616_p0_v1_s260x420JoJo Moyes latest book – The Girl You Left Behind – has it all – intrigue, romance, historical World War I setting, the French countryside, even art – with references to Matisse. Charming and suspenseful, the story uses the painting by artist, Edouard Lefevre of his red-haired wife, Sophie, to link two love stories – one set in wartime France, the other in a modern war of provenance.

When the Kommandant, who has occupied Sophie’s hotel with his enemy troops, takes an interest not only in her husband’s portrait but in Sophie herself, the picture becomes a negotiating tool for Edouard’s freedom. Years later, Liv Halston finds herself in the middle of a court battle to keep the picture that gave her comfort when her husband died prematurely. Moyes cleverly builds in a back story of wartime drama.

A friend recommended this book, and I happily lost myself in the story, but – even better – the references to Matisse, one of my favorite artists, reminded me of my recent visit to the Matisse exhibit at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.

Vienna – Coffee and Strudel


Cafe Central in Vienna has the ghosts of Freud and Trotsky drinking coffee and eating strudel. As I sipped my cup of coffee and listened to the piano player under the life sized portraits of Franz Joseph and his wife Sisi (often referred to as the fifteenth century equivalent of Princess Diana), I wondered if Freud’s famous “Interpretation of Dreams” was influenced by the sugar rush of tempting desserts.

A life size seated Peter Altenberg lingers by the pastry case, motivating me to look for his works. His “Telegrams of the Soul” is now on my Kindle.

Mission to Paris

World War II is brewing in 1933, Hitler is intimidating the Parisians while misleading Chamberlain, and a Hollywood actor born in Vienna is an enticing tool for both sides in Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris.

The plot stumbles along slowly as screen star Fredric Stahl gets comfortable in Paris and begins work on his new war movie.  Stahl naively underestimates the political power of the German forces around him, and prefers to think of the Paris of his youth.  He’s accidentally assaulted in a street protest, and is threatened by a German Nazi officer who breaks into his Paris hotel, but the action is more insidious than outright lethal.

Stahl is easy to like despite his tedious innocent-abroad persona.  He is as comfortable drinking beer in a backdoor saloon as he is sipping champagne at a society soirée.  As he acquires a political conscience, strong women add to the intrigue: svelte Russian actress and superspy Olga Orlova, Nazi sympathizer and society hostess Baroness von Reschke, socialite and lover Kiki, and demure seamstress and Polish political exile Renate Steiner.

After witnessing the infamous Kristallnacht, halfway through the book, Stahl finally becomes the undercover agent you’ve been waiting for, and the action escalates into spy thriller mode.   Stahl successfully passes on war secrets while undercover as the movie star under the direction of a wry American embassy official.  When the cast and crew relocate to Hungary to shoot a scene in a castle, the danger of passing through Germany changes his fate.  A finale includes a romantic getaway with assassins in hot pursuit.

Although this is Furst’s twelfth spy thriller, it is my first encounter with his historical espionage tales, often compared to those of John le Carré – an intelligent blend of history and drama with enough suspense to keep you turning pages.  Through Furst’s characters, the fear of pre-war Paris seemed real; not even a famous Hollywood actor could escape the terrorizing hammer of the Nazis.

The novel ends in 1939, a year before France was attacked by Germany “on 10 May, 1943, and surrendered on 21 June”  – and three years before the July, 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ Paris roundup of Jews used by Tatania de Rosnay in Sarah’s Key (targeted for discussion soon by one of my book groups).  Furst provides the historical foundation for that event in Mission to Paris by clearly addressing the French complicity with the Nazis.