Jasmine in Paris: Far from Penang
By Clare Flynn
Genre: Historical fiction
Review by Hannah Noble | Last updated May 22, 2023
An immersive, historical, coming of age story that will keep you hooked until the final page.
Click to watch the video review
Watch the video review
Set in an interesting late post-war time period (1949-1950), in multiple locations (Paris, Nairobi, and Malaysia) we follow Jasmine Barrington, a British colonial living with her stepfamily in Kenya as she decides to follow her dream to study at a prestigious art school in Paris, all while grappling with love, loss, and at times, loneliness, feeling both daunted and empowered by her decision to follow her dream of becoming a successful artist.
Although the novel primarily focuses on Jasmine, it also briefly follows her friend from Penang, Howard Baxter, a rubber planter in Malaysia. This narrative provides an interesting historical element regarding the relationship between the British and the Chinese and the ongoing conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists, along with the deep-rooted racism and prejudice at this time, but how through it all, Howard is able to hold onto hope and experience his own coming-of-age story.
I began reading the book knowing very little about it, other than it was historical and there was a romantic element to the story – I hadn’t read the three earlier books in the saga, but this posed no problem, as author Clare Flynn explained all relevant elements of the backstory allowing this book to be read as a standalone.
At first, I was confused on the ‘point’ of the story. Was it a social commentary? A love story? But towards the end, it became clear. Jasmine in Paris is about the internal awakening of a young woman as she experiences life on her own two feet in a city that is famous for both its beauty and its hostility.
With key themes of education, experience and love, the novel is a clear depiction of a loss of innocence through troubled love, friendship, poverty vs privilege, and discrimination. As Jasmine spends her year in Paris, she gains knowledge, both in her artistic education and through her own life experience, in particular through conversations with her new friends who expose her sheltered upbringing, save a few past experiences that are mentioned. Each of these secondary characters serve a purpose in the telling of Jasmine’s story as her friendships give her the tools she needs to see what she’s been blind to for so long: the comfort and joy that can be found in true love and the fact that not all that glitters is gold.
The writing itself was immersive and very readable. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so lost in a book that I haven’t been pondering other things or been tempted to scroll on my phone. I’m not normally a lover of description, preferring dialogue, but Flynn’s skilled depiction of settings and characters strikes a fine balance between scene-setting and leaving details to the imagination, enhancing my connection to the story as my own imagination was able to explore and expand upon the details provided.
For me, this book depicted a character’s emergence into adulthood, as Jasmine fell in love and pursued an artist’s search for meaning. Did she find it? A poignant, powerful, and enjoyable 4 star read.