It is 1815. Napoleon is on his way to exile on Saint Helena. Paris is filled with victorious foreigners — Brits, Prussians, Austrians. Looted booty from the Napoleonic conquests — art works, fossils, scientific specimens — is being squirreled away against claims for return. New scientific speculation is challenging orthodox theology. Lamarck is teaching new evolutionary theory. Cuvier is busily studying comparative anatomy. It is a world in flux, socially, intellectually, politically. It is the world of Rebecca Stott’s new historical novel, The Coral Thief.
Into this world she introduces 21-year-old Daniel Conner, an Edinburgh medical student come to study at the Jardin des Plantes under Cuvier. He comes with a letter of introduction and gifts for the great man from his mentor in Edinburgh. But on the coach to Paris, he is entranced by a fellow passenger, a mysterious older female who seems to know a good deal about the new scientific ideas and a good deal about the world as well. After some stimulating conversation they both fall asleep, and when Daniel wakes up, he finds that the woman is gone and so are his letters of introduction and gifts. So begins Stott’s novel.
It is a book that combines the historical romance with the jewel heist thriller, an intriguing combination that would seem to offer some promise. Unfortunately, it is a promise that is not quite kept. While Stott does manage to create a nicely researched picture of Paris in this post-Napoleonic era, it is more a miniature than it is a mural. Perhaps because most of the story is narrated by the youthful, inexperienced Daniel, the historical framework often lacks depth. He is too wide-eyed and self-absorbed to give the reader the kind of context a more seasoned observer might provide. While this may be appropriate from the point of view of character, it is somewhat disappointing from that of the reader. Stott does try what she has called an “anchoring of Daniel’s story to history” by interspersing short clips of third person narrative describing Napoleon’s passage aboard the HMS Bellerophon and eventual arrival on Saint Helena, yet more often than not these passages read as intrusions. The novel never really captures the turbulence of the period.