“I see how Hugo looks at you, and I see how you look at him. I am only telling you it is alright if you want to.”
“I don’t. And I thought you loved him.”
She smiled at me, warily. “Silly girl,” she said. “What can you possibly know about love?”
This is novel is full of such sad beauty, stories that converge, changing facts, tying moments until everything makes sense. It is at turns romantic and tragic, it is stories in the brutalities of fate. It is a book I have added to my favorites list, because when I devoured it back in November I felt sad it was over. If you’re looking for a light little French read, this isn’t for you. If you want stories with depth, flawed characters, love that is forbidden, characters who make mistakes, all tied to a French estate then it’s perfection.
The novel begins with an American student given the opportunity to work as an au pair for a married couple, Olga and Hugo in the French countryside. Her job is to keep Élodie (their young child) company and help her practice English while Hugo works on his book and Olga prepares for their move. Before long she falls for Hugo’s allure, a flirtation begins but she isn’t seeing the full picture. Her passion is a distraction, and it isn’t until later she really understands her purpose for being there and just why Olga was so careful with Élodie .There is the former courtesan now the lady of the manor who later becomes an eclipse, a man who as a boy protects his damaged brother from his bully of a father, a mother and daughter who find themselves in positions of belongings from a family of Jews who had to escape into the night and everything flows gorgeously.
Hélène wonders how to connect to her with her granddaughter during a visit while her husband drifts further and further away in his mind, the distance of time and age a wall she longs to scale, she decides to let grandchild chose a fruit and is flummoxed by the child’s choice. A woman is seduced by a poet and is much gossiped about, a mangy dog forces his way into a woman’s heart, a woman falls for a much older man not once perceived as a threat by her husband. There is a heritage of secrets passed down, wrongs made right in small gestures, and yet some stories are crushingly sad from start to finish.
Many of the characters bounce through time, and there is a resolution to many of the stories. There are regrets and chances that pass, untried desires, and incidents that alter the course of a life. My heart truly broke reading about the brothers, Guy and Jacques and the difficulties with their father. How Guy’s mental state drives the family to do something irrevocable soured me, and yet it’s a reality some families know too well. Yes, the novel is heavy and dark at times, but it has the ability gut you and I was fully engaged.
I wish I could write about each story at length, I particularly found myself laughing at the thoughts Hélène has about Élodie’s behavior and her body because Europeans deal with issues of ‘weight’ in ways we Americans find downright mean, and they see as refreshing honesty. You can feel her biting her tongue, wanting so badly to correct the child’s ‘imperfections’ and yet she dearly loves her. I found myself nodding, because it sounds like my elders. All their ‘cruelties’ were simply ‘critiques’ to the betterment of their family. Yet Hélène is not cruel, not at all, she is simply the product of an earlier time.
Yes, read it!
Publication Date: March 27, 2018
Little, Brown and Company