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December 2018 book reviews

Connexion journalists read the latest French releases. To be fair, each gets 20 minutes’ reading time

The Queen’s Embroiderer, Joan DeJean

Bloomsbury Publishing, $30 ISBN: 978-1-63286-474-1

This unusual non-fiction book gives a unique insight into life in the 17th-18th centuries, from Versailles to Louisiana, via research into a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ tale the author came across by accident.

Working in the national archives she found a letter appointing one Jean Magoulet as embroiderer to Louis XIV’s queen - and then saw a royal decree to lock up his daughter and send her to the colonies...

The book details the lives of the Chevrots and Magoulets, who rose to riches in finance and embroidery, and in particular Louis and Louise who fell in love against their fathers’ wishes.

Embroidery was a key way in which wealth was displayed and the ‘Sun King’ himself ‘seemed garbed solely in gold and silver, reflecting light at every turn’. When ‘a taste for fabulous garments’ spread to the middle class too, the haute couture industry was born, but no modern fashion compares to the extravagance of outfits, which could include over 10 pounds of precious thread.

Despite success the Magoulets and Chevrots got into trouble with risky stock market investments and were ruthless with disobedient family.

This densely researched book is not a light read but is full of first-hand glimpses into what life was like in the days of the most famous of all royal courts.

Paris Echo, Sebastian Faulks

Hutchinson £13.99  ISBN: 978-1-78-633022-2

British novelist Sebastian Faulks, known for historical novels set in France, has this time chosen a setting in the recent past. The book tells intertwining tales of a Moroccan man and an American woman in Paris, taking us to districts away from the tourist trail, with a gritty, realistic feel.

Tariq hides on a freight ship to Marseille and hitches to Paris seeking opportunities and to see where his mother grew up. But his first experiences, of messy service station loos and tasteless plastic-wrapped sandwiches, are unglamorous.

Post-doctoral history student Hannah, is back to meet survivors of the Nazi occupation after her last stay ended with an unnamed trauma a few years ago. She picks up the threads of her old life as she meets with a British friend now living over a brasserie in a northern district after splitting up with his wealthy French wife. Talk turns to literary eccentrics, like Gérard de Nerval, who was known for walking his pet lobster on a pink string.

Creating an itinerary around the capital, each chapter is named after a Metro station in an area which features in it.

The low-key and unromanticised start, with realistic and nuanced characters creates interest to find out more about how their lives develop in the capital and where (and why) they go next.


The Balcony, Jane Delury

Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99 ISBN: 978-1473684652

Coincidentally this book by American writer Jane Delury also starts with a young American woman coming to France, but this time to stay in a village outside Paris as an au pair (she dreams she will integrate, perfect her French and later become a Frenchwoman with a flat overlooking the Seine, with lovers and fresh croissants every day). 

The jacket blurb says she stays on a small estate – but rather than some tower block in a banlieue the story revolves around a country manor house with sprawling grounds and staff cottages.

Delury is a prize-winning writer of short stories and while this is described as her first ‘novel’, in fact each chapter deals with different episodes in the history of the place and the stories of those who have lived here. The opening chapter sets the scene and gives hints and snippets from history of what is to come. The balcony of the title is clearly a focal point, being a distinctive feature from which one can look out across a pond and woods which we can tell – from chapter names – will feature again in future (or past) episodes.

In one of the vivid descriptions which are a feature of Delury’s style, we are told it has an iron railing “which was supported by spindles that looped and twisted in a rusted web” and which had originally been designed to resemble silk thread by the first owner who made his money in silk.

However in the opening story, in 1992, it is a place of faded glories, whose statues and valuable furniture were stolen after it was abandoned post-war when its then owners, Russian Jews, family of the current owners, were deported to a concentration camp.

There are enjoyable details as the au pair, who finds herself attracted to her intellectual, alcoholic employer, discovers French life (learning to make home-made crêpes and mayonnaise...) and some ominous evocations of historic traumas (the society courtesan who leapt from the balcony; a tragedy associated with the lake…) which leave us interested to read on. However it seems the estate will be the main character, not the people – who will change from section to section, and after we leave the former au pair in a disillusioned middle age, still in France, one is left wondering if it will be enough to hold our attention to the end.


From Source to Sea, Valerie Thompson £14.99 ISBN: 978-0-244-68951-3

You feel a little bombarded with French history when reading the opening chapter of this book – if going for French nationality it is ideal pre­paration for a prefecture interview…

This labour of love is based on notes made while exploring the Dordogne river, supplemented by reading of books by past travellers.

The account opens with Ligurians from Italy, described as the first settlers to the south-west known to the history books, followed by waves of Celts and Germanic tribes. Interestingly, we learn that the river has two sources up adjacent Auvergne mountains, the Dore and Dogne, which mingle in the valley at the start of the river’s journey to the sea north of Bordeaux.

The book is full of historical anecdotes from how Vercin­getorix, who united the Gauls against Caesar, came from the area, the first skiers on the mountains there put cowskin on their skis to go uphill and patients at the spa at Mont Dore, one of the first settlements along the route, used to have to wear white outfits with felt boots and ‘pointed elf hats’ at all times.

This ‘fluvial adventure’ would especially appeal to those who love the area and want to know more but also has enough to interest other readers who enjoy learning new facts about France. It is illustrated by the author’s own deft drawings.

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