Laure Carlyle is the curator of the Museum of Broken Promises, a unique museum in Paris based on her own concept and made up of objects that people have donated that represent something that’s gone badly wrong in their life – a promise made and later broken, a form of betrayal, secrets and lies. Laure curates these artefacts into a display in her adopted hometown in the hope that letting go of some of the anger, hurt and disappointment that the object embodies will help those who donate to the museum, as well as engage and entertain those that visit to read the stories behind the items. A burgeoning success, there is a lot of media interest in Laure’s museum, and an assertive young journalist named Meg comes to interview her, which is a difficult turn of events for the intensely private Laure to deal with.
We learn via time-slip that back in 1985 as a twenty-year old Laure gave up her university studies after the death of her father, and under orders from her French mother, she moved to Paris to heal. Taking a job as a nanny/au-pair, with the Kobe family, Petr, Eva and their two children, she starts to enjoy life a little again, when suddenly, 3 weeks into her tenure, the family announce that they are to move back to their home country of Czechoslovakia. After giving it some thought, Laure agrees to accompany them, finding Prague a very different place then we know it to be today. Half English/half French Laure is woefully unprepared for the world waiting for her behind the Iron Curtain and has to quickly adapt to a life where her every move is watched, and scrutinised by shadowy figures lurking in doorways, knowing that a simple mistake, or mis-step, can put the Kobes, and herself, in immediate and very real danger.
Young and impressionable, Laure gets involved with a dissident creatives group who use marionette theatre to deliver their messages and very soon, she’s falling for their ‘Pop Star’ leader Tomas. Petr is unhappy with this liaison, ostensibly because Laure is potentially inviting unwanted attention with her behaviour, but also because he quite obviously is developing feelings for her. It’s no real surprise though, she is a young and vivacious woman living in his house alongside him and his children, who clearly love their young nanny. Petra’s wife Eva is still unwell, and appears to be ailing further, and Laure has all but taken over her roles within the household.
Petr warns Laure that she is playing a dangerous game becoming involved with the theatre group and their political leanings, and especially the outspoken Tomas. Laure suspects Petr’s is perhaps not a simple businessman, and that the real reason he is living and working in Prague with an elevated lifestyle is that he is working for the state; a suspicion fed by Tomas and his gang who believe this to be the case. Unsurprisingly, and to Petr’s fury, events spiral out of Laure’s control, and her life and well-being is endangered in a couple of terrifying incidents, which leave her desperate to escape Prague with Tomas.
Fast forward ten years and Laure is in an important role at the British Embassy in Berlin, another city familiar with the difficulties of communism. She meets up with Petr, now working for a large big Pharma company, and she wants answers that she believes he has.
The Museum of Broken Promises is a beautifully written book – you can almost feel the tension in some parts, and the descriptive accounts of Prague under communist rule, and Paris, make it feel so alive. I also loved the concept of Laure’s museum. I was reading day by day as part of the Pigeonhole book club and perhaps that is why, but I found the pace of the book a bit too slow; it felt like it took me quite a while to figure out what the story was actually about. I found the different timeframes a little confusing and unfortunately, although they are multi-faceted and beautifully flawed, I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, except perhaps Laure when she is upset by a missing cat – which is given more context towards the very end of the book.