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November Book Club Choice

The Lavender Keeper by Fiona McIntosh

Cover of The Lavender Keeper

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Selected as one of Australia's Top 50 Best Books for 2013 this moving wartime novel, which moves from the fields of Provence to the streets of Paris, is a captivating story of action and adventure, heartbreak and passion, devotion and treachery from an internationally bestselling author. 

Provence, 1942: Luc Bonet, brought up by a wealthy Jewish family in the foothills of the French Alps, finds his life shattered by the brutality of Nazi soldiers. Leaving his abandoned lavender fields behind, Luc joins the French Resistance in a quest for revenge. 

Paris, 1943: Lisette Forestier is on a mission: to work her way into the heart of a senior German officer, and to infiltrate the very masterminds of the Gestapo. But can she balance the line between love and lies?

The one thing Luc and Lisette hadn't counted on was meeting each other. 

Who, if anyone, can be trusted - and will their own emotions become the greatest betrayers of all?

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Author Q&A

Q. What inspired you to write about World War II?
Laura Hill

A. I had the idea to weave the true story about how the wild French lavender fin found its way and to this day flourishes in northern Tasmania into a romantic adventure. I happened to be on my way to the Paris Book Fair but arrived into a sea of festivity marking the liberation of Paris, Charles de Gaulle, etc. It just snapped into place that I set my story in the time of the French occupation with my two main characters a lavender grower turned resistance fighter and a British spy. The war effortlessly provided me with all the conflict I’d ever need and despite its ugliness this was also a romantic time – people didn’t know if they’d survive, especially in France under Nazi occupation, so falling in love must have felt both terrifying because suddenly it wasn’t just about you surviving, and at the same time heavenly amongst all that fear and death. Brave people do become more romantic in the minds of the reader and everyone becomes almost immediately ‘heroic’ in this story because of the tense setting or era. I also think because we’re all striving so hard for world peace that WWII, still in living memory, provokes a lot of intrigue, despair, shaking of heads, disbelief. It gives me so much material to work with.

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Q. Luc, Lisette and Markus are all on differing sides, fighting with different motives. How difficult was it to represent three completely different characters with three different perspectives?
S. Evans, London

A. Yes, it was a juggle because of their different agendas. Each comes from a wildly different background so it required me to research those backgrounds and lifestyles to understand, for instance, the wealthy German who comes from a line of proud Prussian military and as soon as I figured out that bloodline and sense of duty for Markus it gave me his whole drive and I became highly aware of how much he would detest the Nazi war machine and its lack of grace. I understood early that Markus was a brilliant man of the military who was also a fearless leader but he loved his men and he was not going to let them be used for fodder on the whim of a megalomaniac plus even war has rules, so defying Hitler against the killing of war prisoners for example felt right for Markus and so he quickly came to life for me. Luc – who has everything seemingly; looks, wealth, intelligence, the love of his family in which he is adored is an angry man from the outset when he learns a secret about the family he adores. It changes him, sets him on a dark and dangerous path, makes him reckless but emotionally fragile. And I realised I’d only learn about Luc and understand him if I kept him to see if he would break and ultimately it’s not the war or the Germans or even the loss of his family that undoes him, but the love of a woman. Once I grasped that, he began to write himself. And Lisette was perhaps the easiest of all to craft because she was such a lonely figure in the story. It was simple to see that it was this dislocation that drives her to take risks and yet being starved of love made her vulnerable. I take the view that if the research is meticulous from the get-go, the characters will essentially build themselves. So providing I knew where they came from, that I’ve experienced each setting of their backstory i.e. where they lived, how they lived, and I clearly understand their motivations then I mostly trust instinct to craft these characters.

Q. You openly confess how much you love Paris. What is it about the city that you love? And why do you enjoy using it as a setting for your characters?
Margaret Hopkins

A. I was born in Brighton on Britain’s south coast, learned French at school (forgotten it sadly) and have been visiting Paris since early childhood taking the ferry across the Channel that I used to look at from our street overlooking the promenade. It’s sort of always been there! Paris used to feel so ‘foreign’ to all things British and that made it exciting. Parisians traditionally ignored you if you were English, which made it even more exciting because you had to find your own way around with pidgin-French and lots of gesticulations. It’s not like that anymore I hasten to add – far more friendly but I miss its differences now; I loathe that the same retailers I see on a Parisian boulevard I can see on a London high street. Nevertheless Paris has an unrivalled beauty and it’s a city one must walk. The curiosity I have discovered is that in Paris I want to hold hands – even with strangers! It does that to you. It is the city of love. It is inherently romantic because of its beautiful architecture, gardens, the river, its bridges. When a Frenchman, especially a Parisian says something even mundane it’s like he’s making love to you – the language is beautiful; in my opinion the most delicious language on Earth. Parisians understand style like no one else. You can buy a single macaron in Paris and it feels as though you’re buying jewellery. The top chocolate salons make you feel like you want to whisper because they’re so exquisite with their ‘still life’ displays in windows. Paris is a constant assault on the senses and particularly visually whether it’s a bakery displaying today’s breads and cakes, or a famous work of art. I could go on. I’m not keen on anywhere in Europe during summer. I like Paris especially in March or November when its cold and the tourists are mainly gone and everyone is rugged up but still out of their small apartments and strolling the magnificent city gardens, or watching the world go by from a streetside café. I love the glimpses of centuries-old courtyards when a streetside gate suddenly opens and briefly shows off its secrets hidden behind; I love the flower shops of Paris, the fruit shops of Paris – gosh, I love all the shops of Paris. And I especially love the arondissements and the different personalities of each neighbourhood.

Q. How much did you know about lavender and lavender farming before you wrote and researched the novel? Has it always been something you have been interested in?
Tony Fielding

A. I knew nothing about it. I stumbled across the story of Bridestowe Lavender in Launceston while looking for somewhere to take my parents who were holidaying with us in Tasmania. I found its history of a farmer from the other side of the world bringing true French lavender fin to Australia intriguing and I simply had that stored in the back of my mind, not really even thinking it might provide a storyline until I flew into France as I said and was immersed into WWII festivity and it all came together like a storm in my mind. Then of course that catapulted me into months and months of research and a couple of return trips to Paris, to Provence, London, Poland, Germany, etc. The research became immense and yes, I had to learn about the growing of lavender, the differences between true French and hybrids, the extraction of essential oil, the differences in growing it in France and in Australia, why this oil is highly prized, what are its qualities and so on. The research journey is the whole engine of a story.

Q. The Holocaust is almost unavoidable in writing a historical romance set in World War II. How daunting did you find the prospect of writing about it?
Lucy Fowler, Surrey

A. Extremely daunting. The Holocaust provokes instant responses in people whether its haunting images, powerful stories, a terrible sense of guilt or the reverse, a lack of pity. It’s a huge subject and because I didn’t want to write a Holocaust story that made it even more daunting. How do you skim the Holocaust but at the same time pay it the respect it deserves? I wanted to stay on its fringe but I definitely did not want it to be a device for the story. I wanted the horror of the Holocaust to be the bedrock for my story and like a shadow over the lives of Luc in particular but also Lisette but I didn’t want the readers to have to live it on each page. It became a bridge between the two books [The Lavender Keeper and The French Promise] that were separated by their subject matter of wartime and peacetime so the link was the brief glimpse at the family in Auschwitz and just that single prologue breathes all the conflict and oxygen to the fire of that sequel. I think the research was far more daunting than the execution of the story. Trawling Holocaust museums and memorials is tough on the emotions but can’t compare to the trauma of visiting Auschwitz as I felt compelled to do. Then the full horror was rammed home and now walks with me so I feel a burden of guilt – that’s hard work. I read dozens of books and watched a number of heart-wrenching documentaries, including one that was banned in France until surprisingly recently. I read files out of the German war archives and whose stories can still twist in my gut. Nothing about the Holocaust is uplifting. I treated it with reverence and suffered constant anxiety about being true to the horror while not languishing in it.


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