The Blurb (from Goodreads):
In 2000, Gabriel Lambert is a celebrated painter who hides a dark secret. Sophie Cass, a journalist struggling to begin her career and with a family connection to Lambert, is determined to find the truth about his past and the little known story of the real Casablanca.
In 1940, an international group of rescue workers, refugee intellectuals, and artists gather in the beautiful old Villa Air Bel just outside Marseilles. American journalist Varian Fry and his remarkable team at the American Relief Center are working to help them escape France, but “the greatest man-trap in history” is closing in on them. Despite their peril, true camaraderie and creativity flourishes – while love affairs spring up and secrets are hidden. At the House of Dreams, young refugee artist Gabriel Lambert changed the course of his life – and now, sixty years later at his home in the Hamptons, the truth is finally catching up with him.
The House of Dreams is a dual timeline novel that moves between Nazi-occupied France and Long Island in the US in contemporary times. The primary narrative – and the most interesting – is the historical story which is centred on The American Relief Centre run by Varian Fry, who was the first American to be named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims). He was a journalist who was employed by the relief centre to help anti-Nazi and Jewish artists escape France between 1940 and 1941. Among the 2,000 people he helped save were Marc Chagall, André Breton, André Masson, Max Ernst, Walter Mehring, and Wanda Landowska. It’s an interesting story, and not one that has been explored in fiction before, at least that I know of.
The contemporary narrative is set in the year 2000, presumably to make it believable that a young artist who was helped by the American Relief Centre could still be alive. This artist – named Gabriel Lambert – escaped Vichy France, moved to the US, and built a life for himself and his wife on Long Island. However, he has many buried secrets and a young journalist named Sophie is determined to uncover them.
Kate Lord Brown has a beautiful, lyrical writing style, and I really enjoyed two of her earlier books, The Perfume Garden and The Beauty Chorus. I did not enjoy this one quite as much. As is often the case, I found the historical narrative much more engaging, probably because of the very real courage shown by Varian Fry and his team. I rather wish that this had been written as a straight historical, with more time spent developing the situation and characters of Marseilles in the 1940s, without the contemporary storyline distracting from such a powerful story. But this is only a small niggle. On the whole, I enjoyed The House of Dreams very much and feel I learned a lot about the brave people of the The American Relief Centre.