Beatrice Colin’s novel To Capture What We Cannot Keep could have been complete drivel, and I would still have read it front to back simply to learn about the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the novel’s focus.
Thankfully, it wasn’t drivel. It was, in fact, a passably readable love story, love between two people, but more importantly, love for a creation that turned sheets of metal into one of the most, oh heck, THE most recognizable structure in the world.
I found Colin’s novel, though about a difficult love affair, interesting mostly in its portrayal of 19th Century Paris and the incredible changes that were taking place at this time and in this place. Impressionist art was becoming more palatable to more people. Women were becoming increasingly independent. The city was abuzz in preparation for the 1889 World’s Fair, for which Gustave Eiffel’s tower was going to be the entrance.
Cait lost her husband to a weird accident when still a young woman. Left nearly penniless, she becomes the paid companion for the two teenaged children of a wealthy Scotsman. As part of her duties, she accompanies them to Paris, where preparations are underway for the upcoming World’s Fair. There she meets and falls in love with Emile, the engineer in charge of the tower’s construction. The seemingly-doomed love affair comes to a head at the end of the book in an amazing scene in which Cait climbs to the top of the tower despite a fear of heights to seek out Emile.
Aside from Cait, Emile, and Eiffel, the characters are insipid and self-absorbed and quite unlikable, just as I suspect the author crafted them. But as I mentioned before, the main character is the Eiffel Tower itself.
I have been lucky enough to stand in front of the Eiffel Tower and have my breath taken away by its beauty. Colin’s novel made me think for the first time just how NUTS people must have thought Eiffel was to think that a tower made out of metal was going to be anything but hideous. Metal and bolts and nothing else.
And I had also never thought about the difficulty involved in building such a structure, especially given the times and the lack of computers to measure the wind and the air pressure and the seismic activity. Lots of best guesses and fingers crossed.
I was actually quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel. As with The Last Days of Night from which I learned about the invention of the light bulb, Capture What We Cannot Keep taught me a great deal about architecture, engineering, and the construction of one of our most endearing landmarks.