This is a historical romance novel, the first of Sebastian Faulks’ ‘French Trilogy’, the other two being ‘Birdsong’ and ‘Charlotte Grey’, and all three are set in France, during the Great War, the Inter-War period and the Second World War. This novel, being the first he wrote in this trilogy, is set during the Inter-War period, the year being 1936 and the time of the Popular Front Govt. of Leon Blum. It is basically about a young Woman called Anne, her life and illicit affair with a rich married Lawyer called Hartmann. Its quite a short novel, but its main themes are those of love & despair, set within an historical wrapper which gives a small insight into French Society during the 1930s, detailing through the lives of the various characters in the book the conflict with Germany, French internal social divisions, life under the Popular Front Govt. (mentioning the paid holidays they introduced etc), and, for a book if its size (~250 pages), gives a strong historical feel of the time.
Anne is basically a young Woman who travels from Paris to a small coastal village to work in a hotel, The Lion d’Or, as a waitress and general worker. It is clear near the beginning of the book that she has some underlying issues, which are well suppressed in her life, but the dreams she suffers from are disturbing to her. Whilst working at The Lion d’Or she meets Hartmann, a wealthy Jewish Lawyer who lives in a manor house near the village. She immediately falls for him and tries her hardest to seduce and eventually succeeds in getting a part time job working as a maid for his house. Slowly their relationship develops, Hartmann finding Anne alternative accommodation, having a weekend away together without his wife finding out and eventually, during this weekend, making love together, thus cementing their relationship.
Both Anne and Hartmann have issues – this is made very clear early on. Anne, trusting her new lover, slowly explains her past and it is not a pretty one. The effect the Great War had on France controls this book and its characters, made all too clear with Annes problems and to a lesser extent, but no more profound, Hartmann too. Anne lost both her parents during the conflict, her Father because he shot an Officer during the time of the mutiny of the French Army in 1917 (and was subsequently himself shot), her Mother as a direct consequence of being victimised by the village they lived in after the war because he was turned into a public scapegoat by the press. How nasty they can become towards victims. She committed suicide as a result of both the loss of her husband and the subsequent abuse in her village. Anne was brought up in Paris by a foster father, but her memories of seeing her Mother dead, and the loss of her Father and the resulting abuse the family received is only opened up with Hartmann. I think he becomes more paternal towards her from her opening up about her past, this is clear, and I suppose the reasons Anne falls totally in love with him is in part due to the fact he is the only person she has ever opened up to, as she had always been evasive about her past.
I found Hartmann to be a confusing character; it’s clear, compared to his friends in the novel, that he is no womaniser, and his relationship with Anne comes as something natural for him – he has fallen in love. His wife, Christine, probably is the only real victim, but she is so upper class that my sympathies lied with Anne (well, she is the focus of the book), but we do understand Hartmann’s problems with his marriage – Christine having miscarried and can no longer bear children seems to be the main underlying factor in their distance as a couple, or at least I got that impression. Towards the end of the book, Christine hears rumours about her husband’s relationship with Anne, and this seems to be the main reason why Hartmann finishes the affair. Selfish of him certainly, and he is the only one as well who knows the effect this will have on Anne, who has being rejected almost a third time; the loss of her parents, her foster father and now the only person she has probably only really fallen in love with all her life. He is as much disturbed by the end of the affair as Anne is I think, because he knows deep down what damage this will cause her and the life she had made in that coastal village. And it does cause her damage, quite severely. She ends up leaving the coastal town, her job and apartment, and travel back to Paris. Walking the streets in a distressed state, she ends up in a garden in a rich area of the Capital, finds a knife in a garden, and almost tries to commit suicide. But she survives and lives another day. She would probably grow up to be a strong Woman.
I liked this book. In some ways, it has more depth to it than Charlotte Grey, but not quite the same as Birdsong (which, in its own rights, is a classic novel). I liked the way it was wrapped up in the fortunes of the Popular Front of 1936/37 (with Hartmann trying to save a minister of that Govt. in the book who later also commits suicide over wrongful allegations), the way also how the Great War of 1914-1918 shaped all the characters in this novel (and probably the whole of French Society of this period), really coming into its own with the relationship of the protagonists. I recommend.