Saturday, January 31, 2009

Non Laughter Reviews

Anna Gavalda

Four people, misfits in regular society due to age/class/childhood/outlook, bond with one another.

What Works
Paulette, an elderly woman living in the French countryside, is forced to give up her independent lifestyle due to fragile health. Her grandson Franck is a gifted chef in Paris following a rebellious adolescence caused by maternal rejection. Philobert is a socially awkward bluebood who can trace his family history back in detail through a dozen generations, yet makes his living selling postcards while living in an enormous, derelict apartment subject to estate litigation. Camille, a gifted artist struggling with anorexia and an emotionally starved childhood, slowly binds them together.

The story of how these disparate and emotionally damaged yet hardy and hopeful souls choose to provide for each other what their 'real' families would not is unpredictable and engaging.
It is told mainly through the point of view of Camille, a complex and sympathetic character. Beset by mental baggage, she struggles valiantly to put her experiences to good effect for herself and others. Her most fascinating characteristic is to see the world purely through artist's eyes. Her concepts of attractive/ugly/old/nude/appropriate/visually interesting are unusual, such that it is well past the halfway mark of the book that the reader learns from another character that Franck (frequently socially obnoxious) is good-looking. The observation startles Camille, who judges by actions and the play of emotions on a person's face as they recount stories about themselves. The sweetest character is the aristocrat Philou, forbidden to forget his prominence for even a second by his demanding family, simultaneously proud of his illustrious past and yearning for real affection and the chance to live in the present.

What Doesn't
The story is told in a choppy language; Apprentice Writer couldn't tell if this was the author's voice, or something to do with the French translator's style. There were numerous references to French historical figures and events that AW didn't get, but which didn't seem to interfere with grasp of the story.

The choice of opening 'hook' is astonishing, with the first pages describing Paulette's increasingly frequent bruising falls, culminating in head trauma and admittance to depressing and undignified care. The reader wonders whom the author was trying to entice with such an opener; had AW been doing the first paragraph test in a bookstore, rather than reading for her book club, this would have gone straight back on the shelf.

Finally, the epilogue was the subject of heated debate in the book club. Some members loved the way it showed the continued healing and connection of various characters, while others (who had been perfectly happy with how the main story ended on a hopeful yet character-consistent note) despised what they considered a syrupy Hollywood ending - to the point that some wondered if it had been tacked on in the English translation for the sake of the North American audience, and whether we should check the French original for inclusion.

An unusual, thoughtful tale on the significance of blood ties vs. ties of affection in the modern world. And, always a plus to get a little taste of life in another culture.


Wylie Kinson said...

That's the thing with translations... you have to wonder, are the author's carefully chosen words and emotions fairly portrayed?

I read Inkheart a couple of years ago and was blown away by the beautiful writing.
I had no idea at the time of reading that the story was translated from German. Wow.

M. said...

Wylie, are you taking your boys to see Inkheart? I'm urging my big boy to finish the book before he sees the movie