Book Review of “To Capture What we Cannot Keep” by Beatrice Colin.
From a hot-air balloon above the future site of the 1889 Paris fair grounds, Émile Nouguier one of the architects and engineers working with Gustav Eiffel, looks down at the place where their tower will soon be built. With him in the basket is Catriona (Cait) Wallace, the chaperone to two young siblings from Scotland, Alice and Jamie Arrol, whose uncle William is a renowned engineer in their home country. This chance meeting is what sparks the chain of events in this captivating historical fiction novel, where Beatrice Colin carefully mingles facts with fictional romances.
Obviously, Colin had her hands full to properly balance this book, in order to avoid too much romance. To begin with, it did seem practically every one of the main characters got involved in some kind of relationship. Of course, there’s no problem problem with that, especially if can we get enough intelligence and history mixed in with the secrets, scandals and bedroom scenes. Thankfully, Colin successfully sifted these issues together using several methods that allowed this novel to remain solidly within the historical fiction and literary genres.
One of these was Colin’s research into both of the real-life personalities of Arrol and Nouguier. Obviously, Colin chose these two not only for their both being engineers at the time, but also because the gaps in their personal biographies allowed Colin to fill them easily with fictionalizing. A quick check finds both Nouguier’s bachelor status and his collaboration with Eiffel. Documents show both Arrol’s childlessness and his leaving his fortune and company to nephews (and nieces), attesting to his devotion to them. Certainly, these two must have at least known about the other, so Colin’s leap to having Arrol request an apprenticeship for Jamie with Nouguier isn’t a huge one. The idea that the eligible Alice might be a possible match for Nouguier also doesn’t seem farfetched. The other hurdle was connecting Cait to the whole scheme. Finding a woman in need of employment to chaperone these two makes perfect sense. That this particular woman’s husband died in the collapse of one of Arrol’s bridges, gave Colin the notion that Arrol chose her for this position out of guilt. I liked these assumptions, and felt they set the story up for all the important elements very nicely.
Another way Colin balanced the romance was with the facts surrounding the construction of the Eiffel Tower. By preserving the process of building the tower for the story’s timeline, and inserting the real people involved, Colin distributes many of the real obstacles and dilemmas from this project into the narrative, together with interesting bits of trivia. For example, Colin speaks about the number of bolts required for the project, and the precision needed to make each one identical in order to ensure the structure’s stability. Furthermore, Colin strikingly describes the fretful day they positioned the cross-platform, which was the piece of the puzzle that stabilized the initial four angled legs of the tower. Colin’s probably didn’t need too much imagination to figure out how that scenario probably unfolded, nor that Nouguier’s apprehensions about the technical aspects of that day would intensify his feelings about his personal drama. These are the things that lifted Colin’s book from being a mostly (tame) romance novel and into the realm of literary, historical fiction.
The extra treat here was Colin’s gently flowing prose, which avoided being bombastic in its sophistication. The moderate poetic feel of some of Colin’s interludes describing the scenery and settings, usually worked well without sounding clichéd. This meshed well with the language Colin’s employed that contributed to the atmosphere overall, and felt fitting for the era of the story.
After all this, you might be surprised that I’m not giving a full five stars to this book. The reason for this is that what I felt was missing was the “wow factor.” My thinking is that perhaps Colin held back a little, and that somehow lessened the buildup of drama that a punchy climax requires. This also made the conclusion feel slightly flat and lacking in energy. Despite this one niggle, Colin did a commendable job with this book, her characters were believable as well as sympathetic, her plot was compelling, her language fit the settings perfectly, and she carefully mixed fiction with fact. This is what I believe most readers will focus upon, and I can recommend it with four and a half stars out of five.
“To Capture what we Cannot Keep” by Beatrice Colin, released by Flatiron Books, November 29, 2016 (US) is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the website eBooks.com, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.