The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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July 12, 2011

Paris in July: 'A comedy of happiness'

The Bourgueil was nicely chilled. We nibbled on some rillons and spread rillettes thick as pillows on our bread, and slowly savored some warm, sweet tomatoes, pyramids of ashy goat cheese, and orchard pears.

We talked about the same things we'd talked about at the age of ten, fifteen and twenty:  the books we'd read, the films we'd seen, the music we'd heard, and places we'd discovered. We talked about the Gallica online libary and all the other treasures you could find on the Internet, and about the musicians we loved, and about the train or concert tickets or the time off we dreamt of treating ourselves to, and the exhibitions we were bound to miss, and our friends and the friends of our friends and the love stories we had -- or hadn't -- played a part in. Mostly hadn't, as it happened; and that's when we were at our best. At telling the stories, I mean. Stretched out on the grass, devoured by all sorts of little insects, we teased each other  and mocked our own selves, writhing with laughter and sunburn be damned.
This being a lovely French novel, for lovely Paris in July, I had to quote the (one) paragraph about a lovely French meal. This being a contemporary French novel, there is also a meal of hygienically wrapped sandwiches at a French highway rest stop (and if you've been to one of those...I'm still shuddering.}

I don't remember where I first came across Anna Gavalda or this book (her newest), but since I never do, I thought it would be fun to read some contemporary French fiction while we're all in Paris...and to be honest, I wouldn't mind if it were by someone whose books were 'witty,' 'banter-driven,' 'warm-hearted,' and full of 'sparkling impertinence and ... childlike joie de vivre' {according to the book jacket}. 

This is a short novel (about 100 pages) that takes place over about a day and a half. The narrator, who turns out to be Garance, a law student in her late twenties, has asked her older brother Simon and his horrid wife Carine to give her a ride to a family wedding in the French countryside. Simon is 'a discreet man, who'd always made him own sweet way, gracefully, without bothering a soul'; Carine is overwrought, judgemental, and very funny in her one-dimensional way.  Along the way, they stop at a train station to pick up their sister Lola, who is going through a divorce and has only decided, at the last minute, to face the aging uncles and the inquisitive aunts. While they are sitting in a cafe, waiting for the wedding to begin, they decide to sneak away to visit their youngest brother, Vincent, who is working as a tour guide at a crumbling chateau.

As for Vincent, he hadn't seen us yet. He had his back to us and was waffling on about his machiocolations with a zeal we didn't know he had in him.

Initial shock:  he was wearing a threadbare blazer; a striped shirt; cuff links, a little ascot in his collar, and a sketchy pair of pants, but with cuffs all the same. He was close shaven and his hair was combed back.

Second shock:  the complete and utter bullshit coming out of his mouth.

The chateau had been in the family for several generations. Nowadays, he lived there on his own while waiting to start a family and restore the moats.
The tour that Vincent gives is very funny, as are many other scenes in the book (I loved the one -- one of Garance's childhood memories -- where Lola punishes Victor for misbehaving), and on one level, the relationships among the four siblings are all about banter and teasing. But there is of course more -- sympathy, and affection, and admiration, and patience, and understanding ('You know ... she's much nicer at home. ... I know she can be a pain, but it is a good thing that I have her. ...Without her, I'd still be in my curves and equations, that's a fact.') -- all family things that I recognize as true.     
What we were experiencing at that moment -- something all four of us were aware of -- was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people...
      For how much longer will we have the strength to tear ourselves away from everyday life and resist? How often will life give us the chance to play hooky? To thumb our noses at it?  Or make our little honorarium on the side? When we will lose one another, and in what way will the ties be stretched beyond repair?

      How much longer before we become too old? ...

      I'm such a dork. I'd almost worked myself up into a state of solitary weeping when I saw something by the side of the path.
       What was that thing?
       I stood up, squinting.
There's no plot, no dramatic action, no shift in circumstances, but there is a little shift in the mood, the kind of heartfelt revelation that is so drawn out in a lot of the 'women's fiction' that I read, when there's no time to linger on it here. Along the way, there were a lot of references to French popular culture (some I got, some I didn't), and short paragraphs, and cheerfulness. It's good to discover a French author, and reading French Leave was a very enjoyable two-hour escape.

{Outdoor Dining, by Walter I. Cox (1868-1930), found here}

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Anonymous said...

I have this on hold at the library and can't wait for my turn to come. Everything you've written about it makes me even more excited to read it for myself!

Nan said...

Such an interesting review. It makes me want to read the book. I love the pictures and the quotes. Thank you.

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