Genre: Historical Fiction / Romance
Content warnings: death, grief, trauma
Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: delving into the past and embarking on an exciting and captivating mystery
...if the world was so screwed up that virtue meant compromising yourself, then nothing was worth fighting for. But that makes me just as dishonourable as everyone else. If no one fights back, then we get the world we deserve.
Alix St Pierre is a vibrant, highly-independent and driven lead. Throughout three intersecting timelines – before, during and after WWII – we become intimately connected to Alix and begin to uncover what drives her, her fears, her wants, and above all, her commitment to protecting others.
We first meet Alix in Paris after the war, where she is working to help launch the House of Dior. Natasha Lester immediately enchants the reader with her detailed description of the time’s fashion. Alix is presented as a person who rebuffs societal expectations, joking to her boss that she would wear trousers to an important meeting, something deemed illegal in France.
Fashion is not limited to something suitable for aesthetic purposes. Lester makes it integral to finding one’s sense of self, and during a post-war period when women had limited freedom of expression, it becomes critical. Dior’s dresses are described as outfits that would reveal a woman’s shape. The glee and joy from Alix, who questions, ‘but what man in the world wanted to make women happy?’ evokes the shared feeling amongst female-identifying people on the control men have over them. Lester masterfully weaves social commentary into her plot, allowing us to see and feel the past, which is more meaningful than merely signposting historical dates.
Success was a well-cut dress in bravura red that made a roomful of women smile.
In the present timeline, 1947, while the war has ended, we see that the grief and guilt from her actions consumes Alix. As Lester weaves through the past and present, we learn more about Alix’s espionage work. The sections that show Alix’s spy life are fraught with the tension of the time and underscored by the gender divide that sees Alix’s work being disrespected or disregarded in comparison to her male counterparts. In these flashbacks, the reader also comes to see Alix’s flaws, her rashness and stubbornness. However, Lester presents these moments tenderly and humanely, affirming that Alix, like all of us, is not perfect but someone who accepts and learns from her mistakes.
Though not wholly central to the story, Lester also brings romance into the mix. She shows Alix to be a woman who has undergone significant hardship and trauma and is thus somewhat closed off to love. The main love interest, Anthony March, is characterised as a womaniser. Despite this characterisation, Lester delves further into who he is, revealing his pain and heartache. We also see March take an interest in feminist movements and issues of the time, such as the objectification of women. Making well-rounded characters and providing them with depth magnifies the story and makes it come to life.
'So I’ve become the woman no one ever dates, let alone marries. The redhead, trouser-wearing, outspoken workaholic...'
However, the romance does not overpower or take away from a story that focuses on Alix's healing and self-discovery. Throughout the novel, we see Alix rise to every challenge with good humour and unmatched strength. Coupled with the mystery of what happened one fateful night during WWII, when the lives of nine allies were lost, it is a genuinely enthralling book. You feel part of Alix’s world. You can sift through and engross yourself in the tensions of post-WWII.
Lester’s focus on women’s somewhat invisible role in WWII, namely their work in covert operations, allows her to delve into gender tensions. We not only see Alix and others objectified and subjected to the patriarchal gaze, but are also reminded of how their work goes uncredited and unrecognised. It creates an interesting discourse when we see Alix face the consequences of a failed mission in which people died, whereas her male counterparts are lauded for their efforts and protected from any damages to their careers. Lester’s social commentary is one of her strong points and something she does effortlessly. The gender issues are interwoven into every male interaction, allowing readers to empathise with Alix and other female-identifying characters.
'So you are being useful. It’s just that your usefulness isn’t acknowledged by anyone.'
The Three Lives of Alix St Pierre is an enthralling and captivating read. If you enjoy historical fiction, this book offers new perspectives on what we know about espionage and WWII. It is a tale of grief and hardship but also offers renewal and redemption found through friendship and love. I rate it 4 stars.