Ilyse Charpentier, a beautiful young chanteuse, is the diva of the 1894 Parisian cabaret scene by night and the unwilling obsession of her patron, Count Sergei Rakmanovich, at every other waking moment.
Though it has always been her secret desire, Ilyse’s life as “La Petite Coquette” of the Paris stage has turned out to be anything but the glamorous existence she had dreamt of as a girl. As a young woman, Ilyse has already suffered tragedy and become estranged from her beloved brother, Maurice, who blames her for allowing the Count to drive them apart.
Journey back in time to fin de siècle Paris, those heady days when dancehall divas captured everyone’s imagination. Glitz and glamour dripped from every corner of these clubs and their clientele, but backstage, the reality was entirely different. When the greasepaint came off, there was nothing but emptiness and the oppressive, ever present patrons who stifled your very essence, micromanaging your every move—choosing what you wore, whom you associated with, and even if you should associate with anyone at all. This is the world of Ilyse Charpentier, and after five years, she has grown tired of living a lie. She has fame, glory on the stage, but something she has always yearned for is missing: love.
And then one night, she meets her soul mate, Ian McCarthy, and experiences the giddiness of first love—the carefree euphoria, the “there is nothing in the world but you and I” freedom. This is different, this is real, and Ilyse is prepared to fight to claim what she has been denied for so long. But in her bliss, she has forgotten one thing. Casting aside a patron like Count Sergei Rakmanovich is not as easy as she first assumes. After all, this is the man with a boundless desire to control the lives of others, the man who went so far as to bestow a new identity on Ilyse to make her more appealing to the Parisian populace. At this point, the idea that City of Lights is simply a romance ceases, for giving up a life of privilege as the count’s captive muse has now become far more serious and consequential than Ilyse could have ever imagined, especially when the one thing she holds more precious than her own life becomes a pawn in the Count’s sadistic game: her estranged brother and only living relative, Maurice.
But although the struggles in this story are titanic and seemingly insurmountable, there must be laughter, which is provided by many characters, but most noticeably by Ian, for how can there not be mirth in a novel where an Englishman comes to Paris and falls in love with a French girl? Not only do we have the intrigue provided by the intertwined destinies of Ilyse, Maurice, Ian, and the Count, but we also have the clash of cultures as Ian tries to adjust to expatriate life in France. The battle is launched almost immediately during a very heated argument with a nationalistic French waiter over the merits of Guinness versus the vaunted wine of France—Ian’s foreign ignorance being, to the waiter, tantamount to a guillotining offence. This thread continues throughout the novel and serves to lighten the mood by offering moments of laughter and glimmers of hope to Ilyse for the future she and Ian might share, if only she is willing to grasp for it.
From the glittering palace of music and enchantment where Ilyse reigns supreme, to a fogbound train station in Munich, Germany, where only death awaits, you are taken on a whirlwind ride through the life of this young girl whose only wish was to believe that the City of Lights would hold some magic and romance for her, too. Yet although this is Ilyse’s story, everyone in her orbit is vitally important to bringing this saga to a close: ever faithful Manon, her best friend and confidante, whose bubbly exterior masks deep scars from her own ordeal at the hands of the count years before; Count Sergei Rakmanovich, the “cause of it all,” who will stop at nothing, not even murder, to have Ilyse for himself—as if controlling her every move for the past five years weren’t enough; Vasily Markolovick, Sergei’s lackey, who has always carried out his precious master’s wishes, until now; Maurice, too selfish to see his sister’s anguish, too stubborn to understand that he has abandoned her when she needs him most; Ian McCarthy, passionately in love with Ilyse and wildly different from anyone in her stifling world, a man for whom she would willingly flee the gilded cage.
And lastly, there is Ilyse, who is faced with an earth-shattering decision. Her choice will decide who lives and who dies. After being enslaved for so long, can she really give up her one chance at happiness to save the brother who loathes her?