If you’re looking for a little escapism, a trip to the Riviera of the Sixties, then The Missing Pieces of Nancy Moon by Sarah Steele is for you. A family mystery spanning two generations is unravelled by Flo, Nancy Moon’s great-niece, who treads in her aunt’s footsteps across Europe following the clues. It all starts with a photograph.
Told in two timelines, it is Nancy’s story that came alive for me and I would have been happy if the book had focussed solely on Nancy. Brimming with nostalgia for life in the 1960s, the Riviera, Paris, Nice, Venice, Capri, Steele tells of Nancy’s trip as companion to Pea, a teenage girl sidelined by her distracted artist father and disinterested step-mother. It is clear Nancy is running from something and, though this is billed as a historical romance, it is essentially a tale of grief and moving on.
Clearing her grandmother’s house after her death, Flo finds a photograph of her grandma Peggy and three friends. One is a complete stranger. The next discovery is a cache of dressmaking envelopes. Each is dated and inside are cut-out dress pieces and other momentoes left by Great-Aunt Nancy, photographs, postcards and oddments. Flo has never heard of Nancy Moon. Why was she never spoken of? Flo, grieving not only for the death of Peggy but for the break-up of her marriage and the loss of a baby, decides to follow Nancy’s trail across Europe.
The motif of dressmaking patterns is underlined by Steele’s beautiful descriptions of Sixties dresses, swimsuits and fabrics. We see Nancy wearing the original version of the home-made garment, and then Flo following in her footsteps wearing a contemporary version of the same outfit. At the beginning there are so many characters introduced that it’s disorientating. It took me a while to unravel them until halfway through when I realised I simply wanted to read Nancy’s story.
So, an intriguing story idea weakened by the sudden switching of narrator and timeline intended to introduce mystery. The simple addition of chapter headings with the year and location would help. In truth I figured out the mystery very early on. How much stronger this would be as a single viewpoint, traditional historical narrative without the coincidences and neat solutions of Flo’s storyline.
I was pleased I stuck with the story, despite the slow beginning. There is plenty to admire in the writing and the locations are beautiful, a real piece of escapism for armchair travellers.
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