Books & Literature

Book Review: The School Teacher of Saint-Michel, by Sarah Steele

HISTORICAL FICTION: A heartrending and deeply moving story of love and hope in World War II from the USA Today bestselling author of The Missing Pieces of Nancy Moon.

A gripping story driven by secrets you’ll be determined to uncover.

Sarah Steele is a classically trained pianist and violinist whose debut novel, The Missing Pieces of Nancy Moon, became a bestseller following its 2020 publication. Steele’s next novel, The School Teacher of Saint-Michel is a further testament to her skill as a masterful storyteller.

Like The Missing Pieces of Nancy Moon, The School Teacher of Saint-Michel is a story that spans decades. After finding a note from her late grandmother Gigi, protagonist Hannah travels to Saint-Michel, France, to uncover the story of a woman named Lucie Laval, to whom Gigi believed she owed an apology when she died. Steele shows us Lucie’s life through a parallel storyline taking place nearly 80 years earlier, when France was occupied by the Nazis. Hannah learns that Lucie was part of a network of figures resisting the Germans, and was operating in secret to save several Jewish lives as they came under threat.

Along with Hannah and Lucie, there’s a huge web of characters, existing both in Hannah’s time and in Lucie’s, who keep the story interesting and unpredictable. The Countess Marie-Louise stands out as one of the most complex—it takes real talent to craft characters that readers begin despising and then grow to love. Despite the size of the cast, no character was flat or underdeveloped. It did take a while to remember who they were all are as they are intertwined with each other in different ways, but they were a joy to get to know.

One of the mysteries that drives the novel is the question of Gigi’s true identity. As the story set in 1942 unfolds, readers will no doubt rack their brains trying to work out which character ends up as Hannah’s grandmother nearly eight decades later. Judging from the clue that Gigi wronged Lucie Laval in some way, there are multiple characters who could be guilty. Although I guessed in the end, I spent most of the story totally convinced that she was someone else.  

Besides the enthralling secrets that slowly unravel in the story, the stunning prose is another reason to keep reading. Steele’s beautiful wording adds even more emotion to a tale that already pulls on the heartstrings. While the first part of the story is a little slow as Hannah settles into Saint-Michel, it quickly becomes impossible not to emotionally invest. Perhaps one of the most moving parts comes at the end of the novel, where certain characters who were alive during the German occupation re-emerge as elderly figures in the present.

As the narration jumps between perspectives and timelines, readers really have to pay attention to avoid getting confused. The narrative style felt a little choppy in places and may have benefitted from tighter editing, but ultimately, this doesn’t stop the novel from working its magic and charming its readers.

So much thought and planning has gone into this story that it feels real. At the end, you’ll have to remind yourself that the characters are fictional (so stop crying!), even though they were inspired by real acts of bravery and resistance during the Second World War. This is an ideal read for lovers of historical fiction or fans of slow-burning stories hiding a sea of secrets.

Reviewed by Vanessa Elle
Instagram: @vanessaellewrites

Distributed by: Hachette Australia
Released: November 2021
RRP: $32.99

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

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