Modiano, La place de l’étoile (1968)

I was recently reminded that one of my goals for 2022 was to read more books by Patrick Modiano (and also, randomly, by Emily St John Mandel, Claire Keegan, Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Townsend Warner). Modiano seemed appropriate for a mellow mood, and I borrowed several from the library, to read together during the same period. But I was in for a shock: this book is nothing like typical Modiano, and in fact, I checked several times that he was the author on the cover, instead of controversial writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

This novel is the first Modiano published. I have no idea how young he was (I checked and he was 22), but he must have been one troubled young man. Having read several of his later works I can now trace in this chaos some of his obsessions: World War II, French Nazi collaborators, Jewish identity, Paris locations… But it’s also bizarre, utterly unlikeable, made to shock readers with strong Antisemitic language (coming from a self-loathing Jew). I really struggled to finish it (more like, get rid of it as fast as possible) and I wouldn’t recommend it, especially as a first taste for Modiano.

I understand that it’s the first book of his Occupation Trilogy for which I had already unwittingly read the second, The Night Watch, which was published a year later. The Night Watch is better in my opinion, because both are chaotic, but where the second seem the result of an increasing frenzy, the first only seems random, neurotic and outrageous. I’m not sure what kind of reaction Modiano expected from the reader, but it didn’t make me laugh.

As I researched Modiano’s age, I found an interesting analysis in the New Yorker by Alexandra Schwartz in 2015 (when several of his books were translated):

Modiano never wrote another book like “La Place de l’Étoile.” That’s a good thing. The novel burns out on the high heat of its own aspiration; its frenetic, syncopated style is as deafening as that of Schlemilovitch’s play. (You want to applaud the translator, Frank Wynne, for sheer endurance.)

I’m glad that I’d already decided to read several books in parallel by Modiano and that I had two others on my nightstand ready to use as a palate cleanser, so I wouldn’t stay for long on a bad impression. I wonder what the reception of the book was and what the Nobel prize team thought of this one.

Flore Vesco, D’Or et d’Oreillers (2021)

I’ll confess that the first thing that attracted me in this book was the cover art. It is aesthetically pleasing (inspired by the famous Kiss by Gustav Klimt, and designed by Mayalen Goust) and also mysterious (I hadn’t noticed the black form around the sleeping girl’s head until much later). I knew Flore Vesco was a best-selling French author for young readers and I just picked the book at the library without any further information. It was indeed a lucky discovery!

The story is told in a fictional 19th British countryside, where wealthy aristocracy wants to marry off their daughters to the richest party around. The heir to Blenkinsop Castle, Lord Handerson, is the focus of attention, but his condition is that each prospective fiancée spends a night, unchaperoned, at the castle, alone in a bedroom with a huge pile of mattress. The ambitious Mrs. Watkins is ready to send her daughters Margaret, Martha and May there, together with their maid Sadima, but all 3 get turned back in the morning with no explanation.

This is the most unexpected rewriting of a classic tale (Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea”) that I’ve read. From the prologue we are warned that the original tale is sort of ridiculous: to check the nobility of a future wife based on her extreme sensitivity, or rather frailty, had always seemed to me like a weird choice even for a patriarchal logic. You’d think that a powerful lord would need a solid young woman with a stiff upper lip to bear his children, not a girl who’d whine about a pea. Anyway, here we’re in fantasy territory and not everything is supposed to be historically accurate. But it is also transgressive and positive!

I will spoil a little bit: Sadima the maid is the true heroine of this tale and she is strong, resourceful and daring. She’s not shy about her body, her skills, her intelligence and her dreams! She’s also not shy about exploring feelings and sex (after all, a bedroom with lots of mattress is not really about a lost pea, right?), although nothing is explicit in the book (the publisher suggest readers from age 14). The book takes many twists and turns, getting into romance territory to veer off towards supernatural and even horror. It might be a bit confusing to younger readers (especially the very metaphorical allusions to sex) but to me it was fun and liberating.

Flore Vesco is a French lit teacher and it shows, in the way she plays with words and levels of language (from casual to poetic, from formal to puns). My 13yo was not really attracted by the girly premises of the book, but I’m sure he’d have enjoyed it. This book was part of a selection by our librarians of books that have all participated to a particular YA / kids literary prize, the Prix Sorcieres (Witches). Now I’m really curious about other winners of these prizes!

Sophie Adriansen, La Remplaçante (2021)

It’s hard to write negatively about such a book, a graphic novel that’s speaking about a rarely mentioned topic in France and a book so obviously well-meaning. I don’t want to be mean, but my expectations were probably too high and I’ve only read glowing, raving reviews in French about it, so I’m inclined not to mince my words.

The book follows Marketa in her very first months as a young mother, and what may or may not be a bout of post-partum depression. Marketa is very much in love with Clovis, who has kids from a previous relationship, and while the pregnancy was ok, the birth experience was traumatic to Marketa and she feels utterly lost in front of this baby girl. Whatever dreams she had on being a mother, she doesn’t feel instantly connected to little Zoe and she’s insecure about her body, her feelings, her ability to take care of the baby.

Having this book available to young mothers is a great first step towards normalizing and recognizing post partum as a difficult period for women. Other reviews insist that it’s the first graphic novel on the subject (in France?) and that it breaks a taboo, but the novelty of it didn’t strike me so much.

I feel that the two female authors have rather tip-toed around the subject. Marketa certainly has depressive tendencies due to hormonal changes, but her PPD seems rather mild. The birth is traumatic to her (probably compared to her idealized expectations) but the art is very clean and naive and we’re certainly not shown much.

It looks to me as if the authors wanted to keep the story clean and wholesome so as not to scare pregnant women. But in doing so they are more alluding to issues than confronting them. Still, it’s great if a new mother reads this book and concludes that it’s normal to struggle in the first few months of parenthood.

As for my own experience, back in 2014 I reviewed Rachel Cusk’s bitter memoir of early motherhood, and commented on the sub-genre of candid memoirs and realistic guidebooks on the topic, which were piled high near my bed after the birth of my kids. They were all in English and catered to my need to confirm that everything was indeed normal, that post partum would not last forever and that things would go easier with the baby.

Arlette Farge, La révolte de Mme Montjean (2016)

Mrs Montjean’s Rebellion is a history non-fiction book that reads like a novel, albeit an unfinished one. Arlette Farge is a well-established French historian focused on 18th century daily life, especially on lower-middle class, before the Revolution. In her research she came across a journal held by a man who wrote down his tumultuous relationship with his wife. It’s a very rare document, and not everything about the context is known, but Farge is taking this as a base to see larger trend in the pre-Revolution society.

Mrs Montjean is the normally busy wife of a tailor, but after she visited her hometown for “holidays”, she returned with a new mood. She no longer wants to work; she wants to have fun, eat fine food and spend money earned by her husband. She apparently developed a taste for libertine relations (kinky? We don’t get many details) and she is no longer content with being a respectable business partner. She aspires to a lifestyle closer to courtiers of Versailles, even if she doesn’t have the means and status.

From the unhappy accounts of Mr Montjean, who sees his previously quiet life explode in overspending, overdrinking, neglected kids, unwanted guests at home every night (his wife’s new male friends) and gossiping servants and neighbors, Farge is painting a portrait of French people who are on the verge of change. Mrs Montjean no longer accepts the hierarchy of social castes determined by birth. Mr Montjean loves his wife, but people around tell him that he should put her into a convent, which is an antiquated solution to marital discord.

The frustrating part of the book is that the journal stops without any resolution and we don’t really know what happens in the Montjean household. Indeed this should be expected from an archival document, but it still makes the book less accessible to common readers.

Manga Updates

I have decided to group all my manga reviews in one post, for now. It’s not that it’s a lesser kind of books, but it’s definitely one that I read wayyyy too fast, like 1 volume over 1 evening. Needless to say, I am wayyy slower when it comes to posting on this blog! As most mangas are series, it’s not really worth reviewing each volume separately.

Jumping right into the latest news, I finished Theseus Ship by Toshiya Higashimoto yesterday evening and it was so good! (also, very dark, it’s really for adults or late teens audience). Themes contain violence, serial killer(s), mass murder including kids… But really what made me stick to the whole series is the time travel, with its multiple implications and alternate life trajectories. I’ve read volumes 1-3 in 2019, 4-7 late last year, got #8 for Christmas, and bought myself 9-10 last Sunday as I was itching for some pick-me-up (Yes, my very own pick-me-ups often include murder mysteries… don’t judge, it’s healthier than junk food and booze). The ending didn’t disappoint, managing a clever time loop that really highlights the choice of the title (refresher course on this metaphysical paradox here).

Before finishing Theseus Ship, I got tempted by a new library acquisition: The Golden Sheep, by Kaori Ozaki. I read the first of this 3-part series and I really enjoyed it! It’s set in a small town, among teens. Tsugu had 3 best friends in elementary school (2 boys and 1 girl), but her family had to move away to the city. She always cherished her memory of these friendships, but didn’t particularly keep in touch. After several years, as Tsugu is entering high school, her family moves back to her home town. Tsugu is so looking forward to seeing her friends again, but she is not particularly warmly welcomed. Her three friends have moved on, and changed a lot from what she remembered.

There are many heavy themes in this volume such as bullying, violence / Self-harm, complicated family relationships. All those themes are handled with care, and I really enjoyed the nuances and character developments in the first (rather thick) volume. I will definitely finish the 2 other volumes as soon as my local library will get them!

The cover art of The Apothecary’s Diaries by Natsu Hyuuga didn’t really appeal to me, but I’m glad I gave it a try. It’s a mystery mixed with historical manga, set at the imperial court. The heroine is Maomao, a lowly servant working for the ladies, living in the secluded quarters of the imperial palace. But Maomao had another life before: she used to know her way through plants to heal (and more), and those skills (along with her ability to observe and deduce) will come in handy when the court ladies are confronted with unexplained poisoning.

To be honest, I thought it would be corny, because the drawing is very kawai and girly. But Maomao is a real female detective here and the plot was not obvious. It was a lot of fun. I might not jump into the series right away, but I’ll know where to find it next time I’m looking for a well-paced, witty historical crime.

Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These (2020)

I continue my exploration of Claire Keegan’s writing, after Foster and Walk the blue fields. This novella is rather different from the two other books. It is more… upfront perhaps? It is true that there’s a decade between this one and the two other titles, if I’m not mistaken.

The focus of this novella is a middle-aged man, husband and father of five daughters. He’s successful in his Irish small town: while others feel the pinch of economic crisis, he’s the boss of a coal selling company and people respect him in this Catholic community where the convent and the nuns know everyone. His childhood has not been as easy as his life is now: he was born from an unwed mother. She was able to keep him and raise him thanks to the generosity of her mother’s boss, a Protestant widow who employed her as a maid despite her shameful status. Other young women in similar circumstances weren’t as lucky.

The book is this man Bill at the crossroads just hours from Christmas day. Should he do what is proper in this community? Or should he do what he feels is right? If the Protestant widow had done what was proper he would never had been given a chance, and wouldn’t have known his mother. If he does what he feels right, his family will pay a steep price, even in 1980s Ireland.

This really is a Christmas story, too bad that I was not aware of it at the right time. The atmosphere and the themes are perfect, although the bad guys are the nuns, whose portrait is really scary. As other Claire Keegan’s stories, the tragedies mostly happen off the page, we see the effects after the facts, but the anger against the abuse of the Catholic church in Ireland is a lot more obvious than in her other books.

I have now read all the books that my library has by Claire Keegan, but for sure I will keep her on my to-read list!

Patricia Wentworth, The Chinese Shawl (1943)

Laura Fane is a young, lone girl of 21 who is coming to London to meet with her solicitor and receive her inheritance. Upon her parents’ death she was raised by a relative in the countryside and she grew up into a sensible, courageous young woman, but she now longs for some London glamour and fun. Which is weird because it’s 1943 and I’m not sure that it was the most glamorous place.

Anyway, upon her arrival she meets her cousin who is the most insufferable, snobbish, flirting young woman ever. She basically sleeps with every man around, even if he’s attached, and then breaks up with him to move to the next one. Mmh… good girl, evil girl. Guess who gets murdered? Guess who gets the nice man in the end? Oops… I might be a bit spoilery here but in fact the plot was a bit dull and the suspense not very intense.

This is my third encounter with Miss Silver, and so I can now say with some good reasons that we probably won’t be the best of pals. She’s nice, and we share some interest in mysteries and needlework, but… She’s no match for Miss Marple, the obvious other spinster that happens to be around when someone drops dead with unnatural causes. Compared to Miss Marple, Miss Silver has a rather pointed attention to clothes (something that I’d already noticed in The Silent Pool, which revolved around a coat) and to needlework projects. I get that in 1943, clothes might be rationed, but that part didn’t age well. Similarly to the Silent Pool again, the love subplot is basically a good girl being bullied into falling (as soon as possible) into the arms of a damaged man. Reading this in 2022 makes for an awkward read.

I enjoyed that the war was a backdrop to the mystery and taken as a very matter-of-fact event, not anything glorious or particularly dramatic: evacuees, Airforce soldiers on leave, restrictions… This is the day-to-day life on the Home front and people still found a way to have manor parties and get murdered at that time. Judging from the Goodreads page I find myself in the minority and many people have enjoyed Miss Silver mysteries. I’m not saying they’re really bad, but in a contrast-and-compare exercise, it made me yearn for Agatha Christie’s books even more.

Stephen King, Later (2021)

Stephen King is a late discovery of mine (after I went past snobbish prejudices, I must confess) and I have no problem saying aloud that I love his writing so much… Yet there’s a catch: the size of his books. I’m always hesitant to commit to a chunkster of 500+ pages, even if I know that those pages will fly (or maybe because of it, I know that it will make me read into the night for far too long)

Later is the perfect book of the perfect size. The narrator is Jamie, a teen with a snarky voice and some unusual skills. The kind of skills that make you shiver: from his childhood on he has been able to see dead people. He sees them, is able to talk to them and hear them talk. Yes, à la Sixth Sense, but without Bruce Willis. And King is clever enough to make Jamie aware of the reference and roll his eyes. His childhood has been rather sheltered, with a single mother working as a publisher in New York city. But then as he grows up things get difficult and Jamie’s life is thrown in turmoil, even without his special skills.

I loved Jamie’s voice, and I loved that the coming-of-age story mostly takes the precedence over the supernatural. Until… I love that Jamie takes everything in stride, the cool and the sad, the mundane and the horrific. He’s a caring teenager, and I totally believed in his character, even when King takes the story into crazy, over-the-top directions (that I won’t spoil).

There are many unexplained things in the story itself, but I have one practical question: why is this book published in a collection called Hard Case Crime? The 1970s cover art is very cool, but also quite misleading. Jamie is born around 2000 I guess, as he remembers the 2008 financial crisis. The book is a mix between horror, thriller, fantasy perhaps? But a crime mystery it is definitely not.

Stacey Halls, The Foundling (2020)

I read my first book by Stacey Halls at the end of last year and I wanted to honor right away the project to read more by her. Especially as my local library has a copy of her next novel, The Foundling. I also fell for the gorgeous cover art (as I had for the previous one). Stacey Halls’ second novel is still in the historical fiction genre, with the focus on strong female characters, but she completely changed the era. The Familiars is set in Jacobean England, in the Lancashire countryside, while this one is set in early 18th century London, in a city bustling with activity, noises and smells.

Both books are centered on the interactions or contrast between two women, one poor and one rich, but the comparison stops there. Both books are also inspired by historical research, this time the Foundling hospital, a special hospice for orphaned, abandoned or illegitimate children that were taken care of, rather well by the times’ standards, to raise them and prepare them for careers as maids or other modest jobs that kept them decent and out of the squalid streets.

I had heard of this philanthropic institution in a BBC history show years ago, but it was rather nice to see it coming alive. One of the strong points of the book is indeed to make 18th century London come alive, and the opening chapters drew me in right away. Bess is a young woman living with her father and brother. She is a street hawker, selling (cooked) shrimps to hungry passers-by after buying it (raw) from the fishing boats unloading on the river Thames at dawn. She fell in love with a mysterious, rather well-off man, fell pregnant and soon learnt that the man had died. She can’t keep the baby, but she hopes very much to leave her at the Foundling Hospital and to fetch her un a few years’ time, as soon as she will have saved some money. Those chapters are heart wrenching and I could feel for Bess right away.

Then the novel turns a page and we’re in a whole different place. We’re six years later and Bess is returning at the Foundling Hospital, only to discover that her newborn daughter hardly spent one day in the institution before being taken away by a woman posing for Bess. Where is the baby girl? Who is this mysterious woman? The mystery of “who” is hardly the point of the book as Bess soon identifies a wealthy widow with a child who must be Bess’ daughter. Then Bess schemes her way into the rich widow’s household to get a job as the girl’s live-in nanny.

Mmh… do you see any problem here, just in my short summary? Plausibility is not the novel’s forte. It’s too much of a stretch to have Bess recognize her daughter right away after 6 years (newborn to 6yo is a huge developmental physical change) from a rich woman who happens to pass by (especially as we later learn that the wealthy woman hardly ever gets out of her house… which is a convenient way to explain her naivety and awkwardness and her apparent ignorance of any social mores of the times). Georgian England is probably less stiff and stuck in social conventions than Victorian England, but how a street hawker could pass as a nanny, how a nanny would share her mistress dinner table and ask her impudent questions without being thrown out… this all just doesn’t hold up.

I wanted Bess to be reunited with her daughter but not at the cost of plausibility and realism. I was really disappointed, all the more as the start of the book was so promising, and the last book didn’t have that problem. I was interested to understand why the wealthy widow would steal that child (the main reason why I didn’t abandon the book midway) but the revelations didn’t quite make sense (I can’t discuss it in details without spoiling the whole thing), and the ending felt rushed. I will keep an eye for Stacey Halls’ next book, but I will be more circumspect.

Sonia Feertchak, La Vérité Tue, Agatha et la Famille (2021)

During the Christmas holidays we spent a quiet, lazy afternoon doing a jigsaw together and listening to the French public radio, with a long interview of the writer Sonia Feertchak on Agatha Christie. A few weeks later I found at the library the same book among the new acquisitions: the universe was indeed trying to tell me something.

The author has read most if not all the novels by Agatha Christie and seen that out of 66 mysteries, 50 are crimes within the family. (How come hadn’t I noticed it? 😳 I’m kinda vexed). Making an inventory of all possibly toxic family relationships in there, and drawing links between the novels and Agatha Christie’s life, Feertchak provides a new way of reading the beloved mysteries.

Feertchak does not have anachronistic expectations, and surely Agatha Christie does not qualify as a feminist in the contemporary sense of the word. But because she is a keen observer of relationships and how some people exert power unto others, lie their way to whatever they seek (inheritance money, for example), Christie reports faithfully how some women are victims of emotional or physical abuse. It doesn’t mean that they are not able to plot a murder to escape the situation, it implies that at the heart of these mysteries there are dysfunctional families and abuse. There is also complicit silence from other members of the family, for often the abuse is known or hinted at.

Christie also tells what heavy price some people pay for speaking up, especially powerless women such as maids, as they are often secondary victims of the principal crime. In light of #me-too and #me-too-incest (especially in France in the last few years) Feertchak is highlighting parts of the books I read with a new perspective and I enjoyed it quite a lot. Now all I want is to go back to read some more Agatha Christie’s!