Last Christmas in Paris is a novel in letters exchanged during the first world war.
Thomas Hardy joins the army in September 1914 to serve his country in a war that everyone expects will be over by Christmas. He enlists with Will Elliott: “My childhood friend, my counsel, and my conspirator. The man who stood shoulder to shoulder with me when we went over the top the first time.”
Evie Elliott, Will’s sister, begins to write to Tom as a light distraction. In reality, the letters continue for four years and chronicle how their innocent spirits became heroic in brutal times. “That a fragile bundle of paper sentiments survived the war when so many people were lost has always angered me, but now I am glad of them.”
The book’s heart is the relationship that develops between Tom and Evie. “The way the firelight lit your face. If only I could bottle you up and take you with me when I return to the Front.”
But there is substance beneath the romantic charm and lightness. Tales of terrible tragedy and great courage. An examination of how women evolved over the course of the war. For example, Evie feels like “an unworn dress, hanging limply in the closet, without purpose or shape or form” at the start of the war, and just a few years later she is a popular columnist for the London Daily Times.
The novel is also a tribute to Christmas as the title suggests, “how long we anticipate it and how quickly it passes”… how it stretches “before us, waiting to be filled with mirth and merriment and caroling and good brandy.”
The epistolary form has an uncanny ability to evoke the period, and the characters step out from the past radiantly. The narrative is a tapestry of bright and dark, and the voice is original and delightful. It is part The Notebook and part Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Best paired with a goblet of vin chaud, a hearty serving of Burgundy beef, sugared cherries and a roaring fire.