My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was listening to "Fresh Air" on NPR recently, as I often do in the morning, when one of their regular book reviewers started talking about this book. She went on about how it had been a best seller in France and had been translated into several different languages and had finally made it into English, translated by William Rodarmor and Helen Dickinson. She raved so about the book that I decided to put it on my TBR list, even though I knew nothing about the author.
Indeed, I had never heard of Katherine Pancol. Now that I've read her book, I won't be forgetting that name.
The plot of the novel might read like a typical chic-lit or women's novel formula. We have the drab 40-something housewife who is deserted by her dolt of a husband, who runs off with his mistress to Kenya where he plans to become rich raising crocodiles, but not before emptying their joint bank account and taking out a loan for which the wife has naively co-signed.
The naive wife is left to raise two daughters on her own. The older daughter is a thorough-going teenage brat who delights in tormenting her mother. The younger daughter is a sweet and sensitive child.
In order to take care of the family, the drab housewife has to pinch pennies and take odd jobs. Nothing really new about that - she had been doing it for at least a year since her now-absent husband had lost his job and refused to find another.
This housewife, Josephine (Jo) Cortes, starts out as an authentic drudge, but she is not without resources, one of which is her intelligence and her scholarship. She is a scholar of medieval history, particularly of 12th-century literature and that allows her to earn a meager living tutoring and translating.
She has a beautiful older sister, Iris, in whose shadow she has lived for her entire life. Iris is married to a successful lawyer with whom she has a son, but she is really doing nothing. Her life is all blather and bravado and she is bored beyond tears.
Iris comes up with a scheme that she thinks will solve both sisters' problem. She suggests that shy and retiring Jo write a historical novel set in the 12th-century and beautiful and charismatic Iris will pretend to be the author and will do all the interviews and book tours that are required of an author trying to sell a book. Iris will get all the glory and Jo will get all the money. As soon as Jo agrees to this, the reader suspects that things are not going to go exactly as planned, but, in fact, things proceed swimmingly for a while. Then the book becomes the literary sensation of the year!
The rest of the novel is about how the sisters' lie affects Jo and her children, Iris and her family, and all the other several fascinating characters that we get introduced to along the way. Suffice to say that Jo's virtue shines through, she becomes a more confident person, she loses weight, gets highlights in her hair, and ends up rich and with a dishy boyfriend. In other words, it's just your typical middle-aged suburban housewife's life story!
Did I mention that all of this takes place in Paris and its environs? Yes, Katherine Pancol is a French writer and this novel seems very French in its conception and outlook. The book explores relationships and infidelity and the characters' attitudes toward them, how they deal with them, but essentially this book is about money. It's all about what money can and cannot buy and how having enough money makes all the difference in people's lives.
There are just a few quibbles with the story or maybe with the translation. For example, in Kenya one Christmas, the absconding husband and his mistress are unable to find turkey for their dinner so that have "wapiti." Maybe. But it seems to me that if there is one thing less likely to be found in Kenya than turkey, it might be elk meat. Also, the ending of the tale, as often happens, seemed a bit contrived in order to tie up all the loose strings.
But I can barely even bring myself to mention any complaints, because the truth is I loved this book! Once I got a few pages into it, I could hardly put it down.
This was the first of at least three books featuring these characters. I don't think the other two (The Slow Waltz of the Turtles and The Central Park Squirrels Are Sad on Monday) have been translated into English yet, but I'm definitely on the lookout for them. I can't wait to see what happens to Jo.
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