Nicky Pellegrino finds the intricacies of a French novel a touch far-fetched.
The French get away with a lot in their literature and cinema. We indulge their tendency to be hyper-romantic, wildly improbable and artily offbeat, expect it even. The Confidant, by Helene Gremillon (Text, $37), is very French. It's a wartime romance brimming with grand passions, great betrayals and deep secrets, a hit in Gremillon's home country and now being published worldwide. I found it lightly reminiscent of that other French bestseller, The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, but won't say exactly why as that would spoil the ending.
The story, set in two time frames, opens in Paris in the mid-70s. Camille is reading through the notes of condolence that have arrived after her mother's death. Among the usual platitudes she finds one that is different. Handwritten and several pages long, the letter tells of a young village boy's love for a girl called Annie just before the outbreak of World War II and is signed "Louis". Since she knows neither of these people, Camille assumes it has been sent to her by mistake. But every Tuesday another note arrives from Louis, each continuing the story, full of confessions and secrets.
Intrigued, Camille begins looking forward to the mysterious letters as a distraction from the problems of her own life. Since she works in publishing, she suspects Louis may be an author trying to win her attention by sending his manuscript in episodes. Then the letters take a dramatic and unexpected turn, with one telling of Annie's decision to have a surrogate baby for an older friend known as Madame M. The more of these letters Camille reads, the more she finds unexpected links to her own life. Swinging from fascinated to fearful, she wonders if she is the intended recipient after all.
Mostly set between 1939 and 1943, this is a debut novel for Gremillon, a former newspaper journalist in Paris. It isn't perfect by any means. Taken as a whole, I found it pretty far-fetched. The plot strains at times and the Russian doll-effect of stories within stories can be confusing. But, since it's French, it seemed easy enough to let myself be seduced by its charms - and it has plenty.
Wartime romances are common enough but The Confidant is no formulaic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl affair. Louis is only ever a cipher. Above all, this is a story about strong, tenacious women driven by desire.
Sensitively written, it is a suspenseful, absorbing tale about the power of history and how it plays on the present. A stylish novel with vivid characters and a quirky denouement. Very, very French.