To Capture What We Cannot Keep: A Novel

To Capture What We Cannot Keep: A Novel

by Beatrice Colin


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Set against the construction of the Eiffel Tower, this novel charts the relationship between a young Scottish widow and a French engineer who, despite constraints of class and wealth, fall in love.

In February 1887, Caitriona Wallace and Émile Nouguier meet in a hot air balloon, floating high above Paris, France—a moment of pure possibility. But back on firm ground, their vastly different social strata become clear. Cait is a widow who because of her precarious financial situation is forced to chaperone two wealthy Scottish charges. Émile is expected to take on the bourgeois stability of his family's business and choose a suitable wife. As the Eiffel Tower rises, a marvel of steel and air and light, the subject of extreme controversy and a symbol of the future, Cait and Émile must decide what their love is worth.

Seamlessly weaving historical detail and vivid invention, Beatrice Colin evokes the revolutionary time in which Cait and Émile live—one of corsets and secret trysts, duels and Bohemian independence, strict tradition and Impressionist experimentation. To Capture What We Cannot Keep, stylish, provocative, and shimmering, raises probing questions about a woman's place in that world, the overarching reach of class distinctions, and the sacrifices love requires of us all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594887911
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 10/31/2017
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 96,741
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Beatrice Colin is a novelist based in Glasgow. The Glimmer Palace (2008), a novel set in Berlin in the early 20th century, was translated into eight languages, was a Richard and Judy pick, and was short-listed for several major awards. Colin also writes radio plays and adaptations for BBC Radio 4.

Read an Excerpt

To Capture What We Cannot Keep

By Beatrice Colin

Flatiron Books

Copyright © 2016 Beatrice Colin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-07146-0


February 1886

The sand on the Champ de Mars was powdered with snow. A huge blue-and-white-striped hot-air balloon swooned on its ropes in front of the École Militaire, the gondola tethered to a small wooden platform strung out with grubby yellow bunting. Three figures, two women and a man, hurried from a hired landau on the avenue de Suffren across the parade ground toward the balloon.

"Attendez," called out Caitriona Wallace. "Nous arrivons!"

As she paused on the steps to wait for the other two, Cait's vision spun with tiny points of light in a darkening fog. She had laced tight that morning, pulling until the eyeholes in her corset almost met, and now her chest rose and fell in shallow gasps as she tried to catch her breath — in, out, in and out.

"We made it," said Jamie Arrol as he reached her. "That was a close thing."

"Here are the tickets," she told him. "You get on board. Your sister is just coming."

In the wicker gondola twenty people waited impatiently, the men in bell-curve beaver hats, and the women — there were only two — in fur-lined traveling coats. But the balloon attraction wasn't full, not on a cold winter morning with a sky so leaden it looked as if it might descend any moment, not at eleven o'clock in the morning on a Monday.

The ropes strained in the wind that blew up from the Seine, a wind that whipped the sand and the snow into a milky haze. The showground smelled of new rope and hot tar, of smoke blown from the charcoal brazier of the balloon, and underneath it all a note of something alcoholic. A flask, Cait thought, was being passed among the male passengers above. She could do with a little sip of something herself. Once on board, however, all would be well. She would not let herself imagine anything untoward, she would not visualize the gondola rising upward until it burst into flames or hurtling down until it smashed into pieces on the ground or floating away over the rooftops like Gambetta in 1871. No, she wouldn't let her fear get the better of her. She had read the promotional leaflet thoroughly. They would be tethered to the platform by a long chain. It was quite safe. And when they had made their ascent and reached a height of three hundred meters, she would look out and see the whole world clearly.

"Come on!" she cried out to her charge. "They're all waiting!"

As Alice Arrol finally approached the steps, her pace became little more than leisurely. A small group of Parisian ladies were standing at the base of the platform, their parasols raised to stop the wind blowing their hats away. After throwing the ladies a glance, Alice's face stiffened into an expression that suggested nonchalance.

"Actually," she said as she adjusted her gloves and stared up into the overcast sky, "I think I'll stay here."

Not five minutes earlier Alice had been almost ecstatic with excitement. Cait found it hard to hide her dismay.

"Are you sure? Wasn't the balloon excursion your idea?"

Alice's eyes widened in warning and her mouth curled into a small smile.

"Don't be ridiculous." She laughed. "I wouldn't dream of setting foot in such an undignified contraption!"

Alice's cheeks were flushed and her ringlets had turned into a golden frizz around her face. She had kept her hair color, the blond not turning dark. It made her look younger than she really was; her skin, nursery-pink and chalk-white with a touch of blue around the eyes. She was nineteen but often taken for much younger. Cait felt a rush of affection toward her. She still wore her newly acquired adulthood badly, like an oversize coat that she hoped to grow into.

The balloon operators started to untie the ropes. Cait glanced up at the lip of the basket. There was no sign of Jamie. She would have to tell him of the change of plan. She turned back to Alice.

"Will you wait here?"

"Are you going to go without me?" Alice asked.

At that point, the idea hadn't even occurred to Cait. Of course she should stay behind; she was a companion, paid to accompany and supervise Alice and her brother, Jamie Arrol. Also, at thirty-one, she was far too old to be spontaneous. Worst of all, heights, steep ascents, and theater seats in the upper circle all terrified her. And yet, as she had told herself in the carriage on the drive to the showground, she would get the chance only once in her lifetime and so she must take advantage.

"Maybe I should," she said. "Would you mind?"

"No, don't remain on my account."

"And you'd be safe? You wouldn't move an inch from this spot."

"I won't be seduced, I promise. Just go, Mrs. Wallace."

"The tickets are already paid for," Cait called as she climbed toward the outstretched hand of the balloon handler. "It would be a terrible waste if we didn't use them. Your uncle would be outraged! Mortified! Can you imagine?"

She looked back just as Alice laughed out loud, then quickly covered her mouth with her hand. Ironically, for a girl who spent so long perfecting her expressions in the mirror, she was prettiest like that, when she forgot herself.

When the last few sandbags had been tossed over the side and the ropes coiled, the pilot leaned on a lever, air rushed into the brazier, the fire roared, and the balloon began to rise with the upward momentum of an air bubble through water. Cait shut her eyes and held tight to the wicker edge of the basket as the balloon ascended. Despite everything, it was just glorious.

Eight years earlier Cait had had no idea that she would end up here, rising into the sky above Paris, practically weightless, impossibly high. She had been married, settled, grounded. Her husband, Saul Wallace, was handsome and debonair, their home in Glasgow was large and comfortable; their shared future stretched out in front of them like the red roll of a carpet. There would be children, holidays, anniversaries.

Saul was just thirty-two when his train left one side of the River Tay and failed to reach the other. It was three days after Christmas, December 1879. As Cait sat beside the fire and opened a novel, she had not known — how could she — that at that moment their life together was ending, that the Tay Bridge had collapsed and Saul Angus Wallace was drowning in black-water currents beneath several tons of hissing iron.

The hot-air balloon had reached the end of its chain and came to a sudden, jolting halt. She opened her eyes. The brazier roared, the balloon still floated in the air, the world was as she had left it; Paris below and the sky above. For a moment she focused on breathing. She wouldn't let herself think about the empty space beneath the gondola. She wouldn't imagine the altitude they had reached. The other passengers rushed from one side to the other, clearly unconcerned that they were suspended by nothing more than hot air. No one else was fearful, no one else stood, as she did, several feet from the basket's rim in the grip of a private terror.

"What a view!" Jamie Arrol was peering over the edge, almost hysterical with happiness. "Come and look."

"I will," she said. "In a minute."

He turned and noticed that she was alone.

"Miss Arrol changed her mind," Cait explained.

"She missed out." He shrugged. "There's the Panthéon ... the Arc de Triomphe ... and over there ... I think that must be Notre-Dame! Look!"

Cait steeled her resolve, then cautiously, tentatively, hesitantly peered over the edge. And there, far below, were Baron Haussmann's wide boulevards that followed the line of the old walls of the city, the green blot of the Bois de Boulogne, the pump of black smoke from the factories in the south, the star spokes radiating from the Place de l'Étoile, and, closer, the Place du Trocadéro. And there were lines of carriages as tiny as black beetles, people as minute as ants, the city as small and regular as a set of children's stone building blocks placed on a painted sheet.

"Well?" said Jamie.

The image blurred, her head began to pound; it was too much. She stepped back.

"You're shaking!" Jamie laughed. "Wait until I tell my sister."

"I'm fine," she told him. "At least, I'll be fine in a minute. Go, go and make the most of it."

Despite the heat from the brazier, the air was far colder up here than on the showground. Her hands were indeed trembling, but it wasn't just the chill. What scared her most was not the thought that she might fall out of the gondola, but the sense that she might be seized at any moment by an overwhelming compulsion to jump. Since her husband's death she had often felt this panic, as if she existed in a liminal space, half in and half out of the world.

In the quiver of the heat coming from the fire, she tried to focus on something, anything. She heard a small click and turned. A man was standing behind a small wooden box on the other side of the basket, his face absorbed in thought. He wore a softly knotted bow tie and, unlike the rest of the passengers, wasn't wearing a hat. As if he felt her gaze, he blinked and looked around. For no more than a fraction of a second, their eyes met. Cait's heart accelerated, a rapid knocking against a solid wall of whalebone and wool. She swallowed and glanced away. What on earth did she think she was doing? What kind of a lady returned a man's gaze? She turned and sought other, safer distractions. Next to her a party of Americans were discussing restaurants.

"Five francs for an apple on a plate," one of the men was saying. "It was daylight robbery."

"But the wine was very reasonable," his companion pointed out.

"That may well be, but they saw me coming. I aim to avoid dining at our hotel for the remainder of my trip. The French have a nose for gullibility, so I hear."

She was suddenly aware that the man without the hat had come to her side of the balloon and was looking out across the river toward the north of the city. She concentrated wholeheartedly on listening to the Americans' accounts of terrible food and horrendous hotel experiences. But she was conscious of him, of his proximity, of the wooden box he was carrying, of his hair swept back from his forehead falling in loose, dark curls over his collar, of the rise of his frozen breath mingling with her own.

"Fleas!" one voice rang out. "Fleas everywhere!"

"I had bedbugs," another agreed. "They even got into my toothbrush."

The man took another, smaller wooden box out of the first box and carefully attached it to three metal legs. It looked like some sort of photographic device. Photography was the new craze in Paris, and she had seen dozens of men carrying those mahogany and brass boxes, strolling up and down the Quais or setting up in the Luxembourg Gardens.

She could see now that he was slightly older than he had first appeared, maybe around forty. His dark hair was flecked with gray, his coat was finely cut and his shoes polished; he looked cared for. And yet there was something in the way he moved, in the slant of his shoulders and the way he took up space in the world that she recognized. He was a man who was, or had been, lonely.

As she watched, he opened the box and extended a small concertina shape from the front. And then he stepped to the side of the gondola and leaned over. Cait felt a surge, the momentum of falling, headlong, into nothingness. Of its own accord, her hand reached out and grabbed his arm. He turned.

"Madame?" he said.

"Excuse me," she blurted out in French. "But you looked as if you were about to —"

Cait opened her mouth but couldn't say the word.

"Throw myself over the edge?" he asked in French.

She blinked at him.

"I was going to say 'fall.'"

"Not today, but thank you for your concern," he said.

He glanced down to where her hand still gripped his sleeve. It was her left hand, bare now of the wedding band she used to wear.

"I'm so sorry," she said as she let him go.

"Not at all. Are you all right?"

"I have a fear of heights," she explained.

How ridiculous that must sound, she thought suddenly, how lame, how patently untrue, in a hot-air balloon of all places. His eyes, however, were on her face, his gaze unwavering. He wasn't laughing.

"I spend a lot of time in the air," he said.

"Really? What are you, an aerialist?"

He laughed and his face lifted. It was not, she decided, an unpleasant face.

"Close," he said. "Are you enjoying it?"

"It certainly is an experience," she replied. "I've never been in a hot-air balloon before. I'm not sure I would again."

"I rather like it. The sensation that one is attached to the Earth only by a chain. And now, if you will excuse me for one moment, I must take another picture."

He moved his camera toward the edge, looked through a tiny hole in the back, and adjusted the concertina in front. Once he was satisfied, he turned a dial, reached into his case, found a flat black box, and attached it to the camera's back.

"You're English?" he said as he pulled a thin metal plate from inside the box.

"Scottish," she replied.

He smiled, then consulted his pocket watch.

"I'm exposing the plate," he explained. "It must be kept very still for twenty seconds exactly."

She held her breath as he counted out the seconds.

"Voilà!" he said as he wound the shutter closed again. "Just in time."

She looked up and noticed that a thin mist had begun to descend, enveloping the balloon in white.

"We'll have to imagine the view instead," she suggested.

He turned and gave her his full attention again.

"Then imagine a tower," he said. "The tallest tower in the world. It will be built right here on the Champ de Mars for the World's Fair, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. You won't have to come up in a balloon anymore."

"That!" she said. "But everyone says it's going to be awful, just a glorified pylon."

He laughed and began to put away his camera.

"Or a truly tragic lamppost," he said.

There was a sudden tug and the balloon dropped a couple of feet. The passengers let out a cry of alarm, followed quickly by a show of amusement. Maybe they weren't all quite as fearless as they appeared.

"That was short," said Jamie, appearing suddenly at her elbow. "And you can't see anything now. Not sure it was worth the price of the ticket."

"You should take the steamboat, a bateau-mouche," the Frenchman suggested. "The route from Charenton to Auteuil is the best and only costs twenty centimes. It takes you through the whole city by the river."

The two men began to chat, as men do, about professions and prospects. Cait felt a spike of disappointment; she wished that Jamie hadn't come looking for her.

"You're an engineer," said Jamie. "What a coincidence! You might have heard of my uncle, William Arrol. Our company is working on the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh. And we've almost finished one across the Tay, to replace the one that collapsed."

He glanced briefly in Cait's direction. The balloon was yanked down another couple of feet. Something within her plummeted in tandem. She had forgotten herself. She was thirty-one years old; she'd had her chance.

"What are your current projects?" Jamie asked the engineer.

"A tower made of iron," he said, and smiled at Cait.

"Not Eiffel's tower?" said Jamie. "The one they're going to build somewhere around here?"

"I designed it," he replied. "Together with my colleague, Maurice Koechlin. We work for Gustave Eiffel."

Cait covered her mouth with her hand. Beneath her fingertips her cheeks burned.

"You should have told me," she said. "There I was, calling it a truly tragic lamppost."

Jamie glanced at her. Clearly she had spoken out of turn. The Frenchman, however, didn't seem offended, but amused.

"I called it that, not you. Today I was trying to take some photographs of the site for our archive," he explained. "We start digging the foundations next week."

"Really! And how long do you expect construction to take?" Jamie asked.

"It must be ready for the Great Exhibition, so two years at the most. And once she stands, you will be able to see her from all over the city."

"Impressive! You know, I'm training to be an engineer myself."


Excerpted from To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin. Copyright © 2016 Beatrice Colin. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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To Capture What We Cannot Keep 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The true love story of this novel is good and has you hoping and relieved for a good ending. Some tragic events for other well developed characters. A period piece, with some history woven through it. Could make a nice movie. JDL 12/25/16
gaele More than 1 year ago
Set in the Paris of 1887, the city and its very unique feel are omnipresent as written by Beatrice Colin. The city is full of changes, music, artists, new thoughts and a curious new construction certain to be the new highlight of a city with so many, the Eiffel Tower. Caitriona is a young-ish newly widowed Scottish woman, hired as a chaperone for Jaime and Alice, two wealthy young siblings set to see the sights and land Alice a husband. Cait has been entrusted with their safety and success of the journey, but Paris and the effects will change their lives in ways unknown. Emile is working with Eiffel on the tower’s construction: a young man chafing against the family expectations and wants to find a new life. When he and Cait meet in a thrilling hot air balloon tour, the two find instant camaraderie. But their lives and positions are vastly different, and possibilities soon give way to all of the obstacles that should keep them apart. This is not a quickly paced story, the scenes are set and build, one upon another to present a picture full of detail and atmosphere. The fictionalized story of Cait and Emile proceeds just as slowly, with carefully inset moments that reveal their personalities and dreams, as well as their connection without overtly developing either character in ways the reader can see. The story brings forward all of the challenges of their lives: the changes in knowledge, a readjustment of social norms, struggles for power and wealth all set against the backdrop of a city and world in flux. This is not a story to grab when you are craving a more typical historic romance. In fact the story of Paris of the day, and all of the changes in society, including a clever set of twists, mix with the facts and descriptions to set the stage for Emile and Cait. Their relationship is slow to develop and more a soft focus, not quite grasping the emotions of readers to fully believe in their connection, but seeing the potential there. Overall, a wonderful read to savor. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
Anonymous 10 months ago
MamaHendo More than 1 year ago
The old saying “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” should be remembered when browsing the shelves at the local bookstore. I will admit the gorgeous cover of this book caught my eye. “To Capture What We Cannot Keep” is set in Paris in the late 1800’s during the building of the Eiffel Tower. I loved reading about what the city was like during the time. Cait is a chaperone to wealth Scottish charges and accompanies them on their adventure to Paris. While there the trio meets and befriends Émile, one of the main architects working directly with Gustav Eiffel on his controversial tower. I really wanted to love this book, however, I felt it always falling a little flat. I would definitely recommend the book to historical fiction readers as the author’s description of high society Parisian life and its culture are wonderful.
SecondRunReviews More than 1 year ago
ver since reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah last year and re-reading it again this year, I’ve been fascinated by stories set in France. And of course, after seeing this beautiful cover on NetGalley and reading the description, I was sold. Paris. The building of the Eiffel Tower. Scotland. True love. Just based on those four things most would think that Beatrice Colin wrote this book JUST for me. Unfortunately, To Capture What We Cannot Keep fell flat, I’m honestly I’m surprised I finished the book. The best character in the book was Paris. The City lept off the pages. Colin explains the construction of the Eiffel Tower throughout the novel. The engineering behind it—how even the slighest mistake would cause the gravest problem. The controversy—many Parisans thought the Tower would ruin Paris and were against its construction. Colin strengthened my desire to visit Paris. Paris is the reason I kept reading the book. The actual characters populating To Capture What We Cannot Keep were the worst thing. The characters populated a City abuzz with the construction of the Eiffel Tower and its preparation for the World’s Fair. Instead, they moved through the story in a rote fashion following the familiar spoiled naive brat, sad widow and unrequited love tropes. The characters and their journeys through such a vibrant city were sorely disappointing and frankly, quite dull. My excitement for To Capture What We Cannot Keep faded fast and while the City of Light does shine bright throughout this novel, the lifeless characters moving through a predictable plot drag the story and dull the lights of a vibrant Paris.
PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
To Capture What We Cannot Keep is both a historical story and a love story. Beatrice Colin brings to life the story of the building of the Eiffel Tower, with well-developed characters that we feel like we know personally. As a French Major, I found the history to be accurate, and I appreciated how the story was seeped in the French culture of that era, from the class distinctions to the budding Impressionism movement. I do wish she had included a bit more info about the World's Fair itself, but I enjoyed the book so much that I couldn't put it down. I look forward to reading more books by Ms. Colin in the future.
PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
To Capture What We Cannot Keep is both a historical story and a love story. Beatrice Colin brings to life the story of the building of the Eiffel Tower, with well-developed characters that we feel like we know personally. As a French Major, I found the history to be accurate, and I appreciated how the story was seeped in the French culture of that era, from the class distinctions to the budding Impressionism movement. I do wish she had included a bit more info about the World's Fair itself, but I enjoyed the book so much that I couldn't put it down. I look forward to reading more books by Ms. Colin in the future.
PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
To Capture What We Cannot Keep is both a historical story and a love story. Beatrice Colin brings to life the story of the building of the Eiffel Tower, with well-developed characters that we feel like we know personally. As a French Major, I found the history to be accurate, and I appreciated how the story was seeped in the French culture of that era, from the class distinctions to the budding Impressionism movement. I do wish she had included a bit more info about the World's Fair itself, but I enjoyed the book so much that I couldn't put it down. I look forward to reading more books by Ms. Colin in the future.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Absolutely loved this book! It captured me from the get go and didn't let go. I was sad when it ended and wanted to start reading it all over!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Myndia More than 1 year ago
Set in the late 1800’s Paris, stories of unlikely love play out with the construction of the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop. Lovely! Truly, such a treat to read. Character-driven and heartfelt without being overly dramatic. The writing was flawless, and the story-telling felt reminiscent of the old classics. It was more sentimental and thoughtful than heartbreaking. And, as is usually the case with historical fiction, I loved the setting and all the tidbits about Paris during that time, contrasting high society with the underbelly, and in particular about the building of the great Eiffel Tower (which I have yet to see personally), and the beginnings of the Panama Canal, both of which I knew nothing about previously. Now I want to know everything about both! And I’ve read so much historical fiction centered around both world wars that it was rather refreshing to read something from a different time, with a different focus. Towards the end I kept wondering how things would end for Cait. Based on societal dictates, it seemed clear how it would likely end, but I kept hoping there was a way out or around. Never did I expect the ending as it turned out, but it truly couldn’t be more perfect or appropriate. This is one of those books that ended just when it should, just as it should, leaving me a bit melancholy that it was all over, but perfectly satisfied. If I had read a physical copy, I would have hugged it a little at the finish. And now that I have read it, I’ll be buying a copy for my bookshelves. That is the best kind of recommendation you could get come from me. ;) I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley. I pride myself on writing fair and honest reviews.
BeesKneesBookishKorner More than 1 year ago
(This review originally appeared on the The Bees Knees Bookish Korner) This was an interesting book. Set in the late 1800’s Paris, it’s filled with drama and romance. Cait is damaged, but strong and a survivor. She’s paid to be the chaperone to Alice. Alice is young, naive, spoiled, and easily led. What saves her from being completely irredeemable is that she’s very sweet. Alice’s brother, Jamie, is a playboy, spoiled, selfish, and entitled. I really disliked this character but I guess you could say that his redeeming quality is that he’s too young to know better, but that’s a convenient excuse. Then we have Emile. He’s the man behind Eiffel’s tower. Smart, complex, and flawed in many ways. What I liked about this book was the history. Colin’s writing gives the story momentum and you’re definitely given the feeling of wanting to know what’s next. What I didn’t like was that too many aspects of the story weren’t addressed in the end, which isn’t the same as an ambiguous ending, it was more like plot holes. Colin also jumped back and forth in time in the form of the characters recollecting past events. This, oftentimes, was confusing and felt more like an interruption than going with the flow of the story. I thoroughly disliked the ending but can’t say why without spoilers. It’s the kind of the book with writing and characters that I’ll forget completely in a week or two. As a matter of fact, I finished this book on Oct 9th and without my written notes to jog my memory, I would’ve had a hard time writing this at all.
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. Not only was there a love story, there was a story about the building of the Eiffel Tower. The latter being very interesting. I didn't realize all the turmoil and protests about having it built. Also, the builders were thinking it would only stand for 20 years. I love historical fiction and learning about different things. So I pleasantly surprised when the book got into the details of the Tower. I also didn't know that Gustave Eiffel was involved in the Panama Canal, as well. The love story was a sad one. And Gabrielle was a witch with a capital "B". This was a very entertaining book and I very much enjoyed it. The cover is absolutely beautiful, as well. Huge thanks to Flatiron Books for approving my request and to Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.