Friday, August 15, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

So, back to historical fiction—young adult historical fiction. I haven’t read a YA historical in a while so it was time. And this was a good one!

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross is an interesting and original look at late 1800's Paris from the point of view of a strong, intelligent young woman named Maude Pichon. Maude, a country girl from Brittany, fled an arranged marriage to a middle-aged butcher to seek the excitement of city life. She wanted to explore what the world had to offer, little understanding the world didn’t offer much to a poor girl except hard labor.

Then she stumbles upon an advertisement from the Durandeau Agency looking for young women for undemanding work. She applies and is offered a job before she knows what she is being hired to do. As soon as she realizes what is expected of her, she is appalled. She is to be a "repoussoir."

Wealthy women who wished to stand out in a crowd would hire foils—companions who were plain to downright ugly. These companions were to accompany them to social events to make them appear more attractive by comparison.

Maude is shocked and hurt to realize she’s unattractive enough to be hired as one of these foils, but she is desperate enough to take the job. She is hired by the cold-hearted Countess Dubern who needs a companion for her daughter, Isabelle.

Isabelle is not so unattractive that she needs a "foil," but Isabelle is headstrong and rebellious and in danger of ruining her own season by insufficient attention to the importance of attracting a husband. Maude is to befriend her, spy on her, and report back to the countess. The countess is paying her. But how far down this path can Maude go?

Paris in the 1880's is a fascinating time, and Maude is in the thick of it. Isabelle, too, is an interesting character with a mind of her own. Maude’s demeaning job and Isabelle’s struggle to lead an independent life despite her mother’s determination to see her appropriately married off demonstrate the difficulties women faced in the nineteenth century. Fiction allows a bit of leeway with the resolutions. You’ll root for these women and their friendship. And it’s Paris.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Thanks to my library’s New Fiction newsletter, I requested A Man Called Ove, a debut novel by Swedish blogger and columnist Fredrik Backman. This is sweet, contemporary, "book-group" fiction along the lines of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

Ove is a middle-aged man who has never had much use for people and who doesn’t like change. He has been set in his ways since he was a child. His life has been hard, but he has gotten by in a very self-reliant fashion and he doesn’t understand why others can’t do the same. The only person he has ever loved, or so he believes, was his wife, Sonja. But Sonja died six months earlier and Ove is determined to join her.

However, on the day he has appointed to end his life, new neighbors upset his plans by backing over his mailbox with their moving van. Ove is introduced to a quite pregnant and forceful Iranian woman, her incompetent husband (the "Lanky One"), and their two daughters, ages 3 and 7. Against his will, Ove is forced to become useful to them and, before he knows what has hit him, he realizes there are a few more things that need straightening out before he can go be with his wife.

Ove’s story unfolds in a series of short chapters that reveal his backstory: the tale of his courtship and marriage to Sonja, the good and the bad, as well as the ups and downs of the one friendship he had with a neighbor that soured over the years. These chapters alternate with the story moving forward, where Ove’s continuing attempts to kill himself are thwarted by the various needs of others.

Although Ove is not a likeable character early on, he becomes first understandable and then admirable and finally sympathetic. The vignettes work to charm the reader. Although some of the situations are a bit over the top, and some are a little too predictable, it isn’t really the specifics of the plotting that carry this story but rather the loveliness of the interactions of the characters. If you’re looking for a warm novel with a "feel-good" sentiment, this is an entertaining read.

Monday, August 11, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Wharf of Chartrons by Jean-Paul Malaval

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

The pile of books I want to read seems to grow by the day, so it isn’t as if I needed to go out of my way to find an entire category of books that I’ve been neglecting. But I do feel bad that I’m so limited to English-language writers. There is a whole world of wonderful literature out there that I just ignore. Every once in a while I read a translation of some old classic, but what about new books from other countries? What about new historical fiction that is being produced in...say...France? I’m completely missing out on all those books!

Well, not all those books. There is a company called Open Road Media that has a variety of digital media ventures, including foreign translations. One of their imprints is Publishers Square, which brings French authors to U.S. markets. Through Netgalley, I had the opportunity to read a translation of a French historical novel, and it was a treat.

The Wharf of Chartrons by Jean-Paul Malaval is set primarily in Bordeaux just before and during World War I. Two cousins, David Pierrebrune and Gaspard Madelbos, make the decision to break with their families, but not with family tradition, and set up a vineyard in Bordeaux. They come from a long line of winemakers in ChantegrĂȘle. However, diseased vines and old family hatreds have poisoned that area. The young men want to start fresh.

It’s difficult to break into the wine-making business in Bordeaux, where large vintners are already established. It takes money and connections, things the two cousins are lacking. Except that they do know a wealthy, well-connected engineer named Geoffrey Castillard. Castillard is a ruthless businessman who made his fortune in railroads. Now he is interested in investing in wine. He fronts over half the money for the venture. Before they even start, control is taken out of the hands of the honest young wine makers. But maybe that’s for the best given their naivety?

The story follows the rise of their vineyard and the compromises the men make to succeed. Wine-making is not the pure venture they initially imagined. It’s a dirty business built on bribery, corruption and deceit. Gaspard becomes the protegĂ© of the wheeler-dealer Castillard, and finds that he is adept at such business dealings himself. David is much more a man of the land. He stubbornly pretends not to know what is going on. Maybe he doesn’t. But he is very reliant on Gaspard’s salesmanship. And Gaspard relies on David to produce a fine quality wine.

As their winery develops, the two men eventually meet women and fall in love, but those relationships follow two very different courses.

The novel is rather oddly compelling. It is a very interesting look at the politics of turn-of-the-century wine-making in France. The novel paints a picture of corrupt practices and petty local politicians and a concern for profit above all else. The art of wine-making is somewhat left behind, but not the love of wine production.

It’s an interesting story and it held my interest because I wanted to see if they could make a success of the vineyard and how it would survive the economic changes brought on by the war. But it did read awkwardly for a novel. I’m not sure whether it was because it was a translation or whether it’s because the author started his writing career as a journalist, but the book has a very journalistic flavor. The narrator reports on the story. What happens to each of the characters is related in a flat almost monotone way, whether they are buying a piece of property, burying a parent, or consummating a long-desired adulterous affair. The characters seemed to be necessary props for the historical setting. The historical setting was very interesting, but I never did come around to caring about the characters. Usually historical novels work on me the other way around. I get emotionally invested in the characters even when the author doesn’t do a particularly good job of emphasizing the importance of the historical setting.

So if you’re interested in a different perspective on pre-WWI and WWI France or interested in the history of wine-making, particularly the business of French wines, have a look at The Wharf of Chartrons.