September 2018 book reviews
Connexion journalists read the latest French releases. To be fair, each gets 20 minutes’ reading time
John Law, James Buchan
MacLehose Press, £30; ISBN: 978-085705-338
Portrayed over the centuries as a crook, a rake and a gambler, John Law of Lauriston had a financial brain that saw him set up France’s first national bank but also create the country’s own ‘South Sea Bubble’.
In creating paper currency he helped rebuild a France brought to its knees financially by the “wars and extravagances” of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and created unheard of public properity before plunging the country into severe economic depression and creating the conditions for revolution.
His Compagnie des Indes, better known as the Mississippi Company, controlled all of France’s foreign trade and had the right to mint coins and collect French taxes. As Surintendant des finances et Contrôleur général des finances Law had sole control of both creating money and taxation.
There were doubts over a foreigner being made controller general and rising mistrust in Law’s plans blew up over his decision to abolish silver money which had been “used since the Roman Empire”. In doing so, he sparked a run on his bank that collapsed the bubble and with it went the fortunes of millions.
With it, too, went all confidence in the financial system, and this finely detailed portrait reveals the man who gambled with France’s fortune and lost.
Saving Mona Lisa, Gerri Chanel
Icon Books, £20; ISBN: 978-1-7857-84163
The George Clooney film Monuments Men tells of the battle to save artworks from being looted by the Nazis and it shows just a little part of the five million works that were saved.
This is the true tale of one, the most famous artwork of our time, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Nine days before France declared war on Germany in 1939, it was packed on to the first lorry heading from the Louvre to ‘safe’ chateaux in the Loire.
It was just the start of an ‘exile’ from Paris that had been planned for 10 years but lasted nearly six.
But it was not safe for long, and La Joconde was soon on the move again – on an ambulance stretcher fitted with elastic cords to stop road vibration – to the tiny village of Louvigny.
There are plenty of moves and plenty of chateaux, villas and banks to remember; many, many names, too, and it does all get a bit confusing. But the thread is there and the tale of how the Mona Lisa was saved deserves to be told.
Back in Paris, various German factions are trying to track down the Louvre’s art – some to do Hitler’s bidding, some for Goëbbels, some for Goëring, the biggest Nazi looter of all. There were some, also, who were motivated by a love of art and not by a lust to have it for themselves.
Yellow With Black Spots, Yolanda Powell
Amazon, £6.99; ISBN: 978-1-9999-22405
We have all been young and we remember what brought us to France and, perhaps, how much of it seemed exotic when we first visited... this book may revive that feeling.
Katherine Stewart has taken a gap year from her Oxford studies in 1971 and arrives in Paris to become a teaching assistant.
Her first view of the city is enchanting, her second, third and fourth less so.
This is Paris in the aftermath of 1968; when people are starting to adjust to the changes the riots had forced and Katherine is also finding her feet as both teacher and young woman in Paris.
It is immediately familiar and although her life may seem set for the humdrum of ordinary existence it is anything but. What characters she creates, how well she draws them.
Life carries on, although death intrudes, but Katherine discovers more about herself and who she wants to be – which is slim not fat – and she also discovers that Paris is starting to be ‘home’.
Maigret and the Lazy Burglar, Georges Simenon
Penguin Classics, £7.99; ISBN: 978-0-241-30391-7
This is a slim novel of a mere 152 pages and the price may seem steep but there is a vitality to Simenon’s writing that is worth it.
Even his description of being wakened by a ringing phone is a delight; the brilliance in his story-telling undimmed by the passing years where Maigret was forgotten by many.
This is a classic as Maigret rails against the ‘new’ justice system imposed on the police; where they are told what and how to investigate – he is less than impressed.
It is a refrain common in every business but Simenon gives it a polish as his policeman battles against being pushed out of his own investigations.
His descriptions of life and his colleagues are worth it alone but this is also a cracking crime case and a delight to read.
The Duchess, Danielle Steel
Macmillan, £18.99; ISBN: 978-1-5098-0025-4
The blurb says she is the biggest-selling living fiction author in the world and the story inside shows just why that is. She has a formula that has won in the past and she has now adapted it so her story is, actually, in the past.
Historical fiction is a new departure for Danielle Steel but her ever-constant eye on the struggles of women in a male-ruled society does not waver as we follow Angélique Latham on her journey from a magnificent English castle to working with the women on the streets of Paris.
It is the 19th century and, despite being her father’s most trusted child and brought up to manage his estate, when he dies she is turned out by her half-brother and forced to work as a nanny.
We know her father gave her an envelope with £25,000 ‘in case her brother mistreated her’ but misfortune dogs her and soon she has no job and no references. She makes her way to Paris where she meets a battered prostitute and, with her father’s money, has an idea for a high-class brothel with her as the madam.
It seems so effortless and that is much of the charm of Danielle Steel’s work. No matter what scandal and misfortune affects her characters they will rise above it and create a new triumph.
There is nothing wrong with feel-good fiction and this feels just right.