I enjoy reading novels set in places I like visiting. If something takes place in France, Italy, or Greece in particular, I'll be pulling it off the shelf to take a look. It seems lately I've been reading many French-themed, France-set books, and two I've read recently are worth sharing. As it happens, both feature heroines caught in an atmosphere of war, one the French Revolution, the other Occupied France during World War II.
The first chronologically is Catherine Delors' "Mistress of the Revolution." I should have known better than to start this one right before finals week (which was last week), because I had to keep putting it down when I wanted to keep picking it up! This is Catherine's debut novel, but you'd never guess it. The story--told as first-person memoir--follows aristocrat Gabrielle de Montserrat from her small town in Auvergne (a region I've decided I must visit) to Paris and the court of Versailles on the eve of the Revolution, and finally through the Revolution itself. Without giving away too much of the plot, sufficient to say Gabrielle meets and falls in love with the "unsuitable" Pierre-André Coffinhal but is forced by her family to marry a brutish fellow aristocrat. (This sounds like it will be cliché, but in Catherine's hands, it's not.) Will Gabrielle free herself from her husband's clutches and find Pierre-André again? Will she survive the Revolution when others of her class fall? Read the book and find out! Readers interested in history will appreciate Catherine's attention to detail, and the story itself is gripping. Catherine, by the way, has an excellent website and a very interesting blog that I read regularly (see links at left). Her next book, "For the King," is just beginning publication production.
Second chronologically, set in modern-day but looking back to World War II, is Joanne Harris' "Five Quarters of the Orange." I read Harris' "Girl with No Shadow" a little while ago and loved it, and decided to investigate her other books. This one features Framboise Dartigen, an older woman who has come back to the village where she grew up (Les Laveuses) after years of more or less self-imposed exile. But she is in disguise, not revealing her true identity to the villagers. Why? Because of tragic events that happened during the German occupation involving her family. The novel develops parallel stories between Framboise's reminiscences of when she was nine years old and her contemporary life in Les Laveuses, trying desperately to keep her past a secret. Harris has such a gift for imagery that her writing is a pleasure to read. She also has a gift for keeping the reader engaged, offering just enough clues in each chapter to make one eager to read the next.
It's an interesting coincidence that both these authors drew on family experiences in writing their books. Catherine Delors is French, descended from aristocrats, and this helped inspire "Mistress of the Revolution" (see her website for more). Joanne Harris is half British, half French, and "Five Quarters of the Orange" was partly inspired by her grandfather's stories of living in Occupied France.