24 August 2014

The Girl at the Lion d'Or by Sebastian Faulks

'In those days the station in Janvilliers had an arched glass roof over the southbound platform as if in imitation of the big domes at St Lazare.'

Anne, a slightly-built girl, stands on the platform and tells herself to be brave while guarding her two suitcases and peers through the rain.

With an opening like that how do you flick back the cover and toss the book back onto your tbr pile?

It is 1936, the young and beautiful Anne Louvet is on her way to a new position as waitress at a hotel called the Lion d'Or.  Orphaned and then eventually abandoned by her uncle who decides to make a new life in America, this poor waif is struggling to eke out an existence.  She has taken her uncle's last name after an event involving her father during The Great War is talked about throughout Paris; harassment from the locals eventually leads to her mother's suicide.

Heaving her two suitcases into the back of an old van driven by Roland, an employee from the hotel, she is put in the picture about her new boss.

'Is the boss very mean then?'
'No, it's Madame.  He couldn't care less.'
'Madame his wife?'
'No,  Madame Bouin, the manageress.  The Cow.  

And so through the rain and then up the stairs of the hotel, Anne is led to her room under the eaves with a plain iron bed, small desk, and a small filmy window to look through.  So far, it's beginning to look a bit like going from the frying pan into the fire.

Male presence abounds in this book with men lazily drinking at the pub while male employees hover around the new employee.  Nineteen year-old Roland even finds a peephole in a cupboard with a view of Anne's bath ritual twice a week.  All of which initially make Anne's character look a bit like a lamb amongst a pack of wolves.  Perhaps out of need to feel protected by someone she quickly begins an affair with Charles Hartmann, a successful lawyer.  If you are familiar with Faulks's work then you probably recognize him from Birdsong and/or Charlotte Gray.   Together, these three books form Faulks's France trilogy which I just became aware of today.

Well-practiced at white lies to cover her tracks, Anne is proficient at keeping the gossip of the village at bay while she spends time with her lover and even earns a bit of extra money doing some cleaning once a week at Charles's house.  But rather than feel sorry for Mrs Hartmann because her husband's bit on the side is right under her nose, her bitterness made me feel sympathetic for the lovers.  Not only is Mrs Hartmann bitter about her barren womb but she is very suspicious which means putting Anne in the witness box, so to speak, at one point.  It's quite riveting!

A storyline about 'The Patron', who owns the hotel, is both heartbreaking endearing.  I wish it had been expanded upon (picture a slightly shabby cousin of Hercule Poirot).  Anne goes to his room in the hotel to ask about a few days off...

'Yes, thank you.  It's enough.'
'Do you know what I'm frightened of?'
'No, monsieur.'
'Nor do I.  That's the funny thing.  It's the trees and the sky and the roads, mainly.  It's odd, because I used to love them.  The doctor said there was a name for it - agora-something.  He says it should get better.  But it hasn't yet.  Not in eighteen years.  It happened at the end of the war.  Have you seen the war memorial in the town?  Most of my friends are on that slab of stone.'

If only Anne would have spent her spare time forming a close friendship with The Patron instead of in assignations with Charles....but I mustn't give anything away.

For fans of the interwar period or francophiles wanting to soak up a bit of claustrophobic French village life this read will definitely tick some boxes for you.  Up until this book, Sebastian Faulks's stories were something I had watched on television but from now on I won't hesitate to try more of his work hot off the press.

La Belle Epoque - a hotel in France


  1. I just read his homage to P.G. Wodehouse and realized I had heard of him but didn't know anything about his 'other' books. I'm intrigued now!

  2. And I didn't know he was a fan of Wodehouse so we've both learned something!