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Posts Tagged ‘French fiction’

It’s been some time since I read a Europa Edition novel, but if you go back through the years of posts here on bookconscious you’ll find that I have read many titles from this wonderful publisher. Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin, translated by Hildegarde Serle, reminded me why. Europa consistently brings interesting voices to print, and good reads.

Fresh Water for Flowers is the story of Violette, a woman who grew up in foster homes and marries at 18, has a daughter, and soon realizes that she is going to have to support her family while her husband chases other women. They work (well, she works, Phillipe fools around) at a “level crossing” — she goes out multiple times, day and night, to lower the barrier so cars won’t cross train tracks when the train goes by. Her little daughter waves to all the people on the trains.

A series of events leads Violette to move with Phillipe to another part of France, to become cemetery caretakers. Again, Violette does all the work. She takes the job after the previous caretaker, Sasha, has taught her everything he knows about gardening, and entrusts her with tending his extensive garden and caring for the people who work in and visit the cemetery. One day, a detective named Julien comes and tells her he needs to know about a man buried in the cemetery, a prominent lawyer named Gabriel, because Julien’s mother Irène has left instructions that her ashes are to be interred with Gabriel’s.

Julien reads about the man’s funeral in Violette’s records, and later returns with Irène’s journal. It becomes clear that Julien not only wants to lay his mother to rest, but also to help Violette solve some mysteries that can help her move on in life — with him. I’m trying not to give away any of the intriguing plot. It’s a lovely book, full of sensual details like the kinds of scent and clothing the different characters wear, the types of flowers, vegetables and herbs Violette grows, wonderful descriptions of food, and many musical references. There are also many details about the places the characters inhabit. It’s vivid and evocative.

It’s also very emotional — there are some relationships that are sad and harsh and hurtful, and there are beautiful friendships and deep kindnesses. At the cemetery, Violette’s circle of coworkers become a family of sorts for her. I loved the descriptions of meals in her kitchen or garden, conversation flowing, and the many cats and a dog the gravediggers and Violette have taken in swishing around the humans. I could see many scenes in my mind and read somewhere that there is already a deal in the works to adapt the book to television.

One of the intriguing things about Fresh Water for Flowers are the chapter epigraphs — every one a little poem of sorts, like this one: “November is eternal, life is almost beautiful, memories are dead ends that we just keep turning over.” Perrin uses a mixture of dialogue, narrative, and journal entries to unspool her story. In the end, I felt I didn’t want the book to end, as Violette says: “I close Irène’s journal with a heavy heart. The way one closes a novel one has fallen in love with. A novel that’s a friend from whom it’s hard to part, because one wants it close by, in arm’s reach.”

A terrific escape.

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I’ve written about two of Antoine Laurain‘s other novels here at bookconscious: The Red Notebook and The President’s Hat.  Like those books, The Portrait is about an object that changes someone’s life. In this case, as you can guess from the title, the object is an eighteenth century portrait that Pierre-Francois Chaumont, a Parisian patent attorney with a lifelong love of collecting, finds at an auction and buys because the man in the painting looks just like him. He has no idea who it might be, but there is a coat of arms in the painting so he researches it.

I don’t want to spoil the story by saying exactly what he finds out, but it leads him to discover, if you will, a whole new self. I had a little trouble with the plot — Chaumont basically walks entirely away from his old life, taking time to bully and blackmail someone into helping him do so. Then he takes a great deal of trouble to recover his collectibles and antiques only to lose them again in what seems a very preventable accident. Also no one in his old life seems terribly troubled by his absence, based on the tiny glimpses we get of the aftermath.

The idea that an image could be a portal of sorts is appealing, and I enjoyed as always the details about France and French life. A minor character, Pierre’s Uncle Edgar, was more interesting than Pierre himself to me, but the other minor characters were nearly one dimensional. Pierre seems rather self absorbed and sees women as merely beautiful body parts.

So if you want to try Laurain, I wouldn’t start with this book, but it was, overlooking the disagreeable main character, a diverting short read. It might be interesting to talk about with a book group because the plot poses an ethical, if completely improbable, question: is it right to take on someone else’s identity if no one seems to really get hurt?

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I recently reviewed The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, and I just finished his earlier book, The President’s Hat. Set towards the end of Francois Mitterrand’s presidency, the book opens with Daniel Mercier treating himself to a meal at a brasserie while his wife and son are away. President Mitterrand and his party are seated beside Daniel. He’s amazed by this brush with greatness, and when the president leaves his black felt Homburg hat, Daniel does the unthinkable — he takes it.

As the novel unfolds, three other characters end up with the president’s hat: a woman in an unhappy love affair, a famous perfumer who hasn’t been able to create anything new for years and is in a deep depression, and a wealthy man who has come to disdain all that his familiar world stands for. As each of them possesses the hat for a brief time, their lives are changed. Daniel gets a promotion. Fanny finds the gumption to leave her lover. Pierre rediscovers his creativity. Bernard thinks for himself, and discovers a passion for modern art.

Does the president get his hat back? You’ll have to read the book to see. Once again Laurain transports readers to Paris, brings each scene alive with little details like the “ramekin of shallot vinegar” served alongside the seafood platter Daniel orders. Or a scene in which Pierre describes an African fetish in his analyst’s office.

This story seems a little bit like a fable or fairy tale; there’s the implication that the hat has some sort of magic or power and is bringing changes to each of the characters’ lives, but Laurain never quite says, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. To me, that makes for better reading. There’s a discussion guide in the back; a book group might enjoy discussing the many social and cultural issues Laurain touches on as well as the charm of the novel itself.

The President’s Hat would be good vacation reading — thoughtful and well done, but not too taxing.

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