Two in short: Tremain and Laurain

Because the authors’ names rhyme, and I haven’t got a huge amount to say about these novels, despite enjoying them both a lot, here’s a twofer for you:

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

This was our book group read, discussed back at the start of the month. It was mostly a hit with our group, although a couple of members wanted more drama and didn’t find the central character as empathetic as the rest of us did.

Set in post-WWII Switzerland, Gustav grows up in a small town. Since his father died, his mother Emilie is very distant to Gustav, and he is a lonely boy in a poor household with only a single toy train to play with. At school he meets Anton whose Jewish family is well-off, the father is a banker. the two boys become best of friends, although Anton, a budding pianist, is rather driven but at the same time a bag of nerves.  Anton’s family are kind to Gustav, taking him on holiday with them to Davos, where the boys enjoy a time that will remain a very special memory to them.The next section of the book flashes back to before the war and we meet Gustav’s parents properly, how Erich the policeman fell for Emilie when she made sure he noticed her.  War intervenes, and Erich’s job includes preventing Jewish refugees from entering Switzerland – but he can’t bring himself to do it – secretly letting many in.  He is discovered and renounced, losing his job as a consequence, something Emilie can’t forgive and explains her coolness towards Anton’s family later. In the third part of the novel, we travel forward again to see what has happened to Gustav and Anton, now in their fifties.  Anton had not been able to achieve his dream of becoming a concert pianist due to his stage fright, he teaches instead at a local school, until an offer and a new relationship beckons him back to the piano and he moves to Geneva. Gustav, however, had inherited some money and bought a hotel which he runs very successfully.  He never married, and misses Anton so much…

In the edition I read, (Vintage 2017) Tremain has written an afterword in which she describes how the book is written using ‘sonata form’- Exposition with 1st and 2nd subject, development, recapituation and coda, and I could see that plainly – but only after I’d read the afterword!  She also tells how she deliberately left lots unsaid, and that was one of the joys of reading this understated and beautifully crafted novel.  Gustav is such a lovely man: a good shoulder for others to cry on, big-hearted, a good boss, a super host – but, there is an emptiness in his life, an Anton-shaped hole. Will he get the chance to fill it before it is too late?  This is a subtle novel that gives much.  Only the second Tremain I’ve read (the first was Restoration years ago), she is an author I hope to explore further.  (9/10)

Source: Own copy.   Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata (2016), paperback 318 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)


The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

Translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

This is Laurain’s second novel to be translated into English, but his fifth overall, but completes my reading of his available work in English (a new novel is due next spring!).  As always, Laurain uses an artefact to drive the plot – in this case the titular red notebook.

The story begins late one evening with a grim encounter in which a woman is mugged and her bag stolen. The mugger also pushed her hitting her head on a door frame. Unable to get into her flat, the woman staggers to a nearby hotel, where she passes out from the head injury.

The next day bookshop owner Laurent is taking a walk before opening up shop, when he sees an expensive purple handbag on top of one of the bins. Knowing the bin-men were on the way, he rescues it and tries to hand it in at the police station, but they’re not really interested. So he takes it home, and starts looking at the contents to see if he can find out who to return it to. Of course the thief had made off with all the normal forms of identity plus wallet. In the bag is a red notebook, full of jottings:

I like:
Walking along the water’s edge just as everyone else is leaving the beach.
The name ‘americano’, but I prefer to drink a ‘mojito’.
The smell of mint, and basil. […]
Having lunch in the garden.
Erik Satie. Buy an ERIK SATIE BOX SET.

I’m scared of birds (especially pigeons).
Think of other things ‘I’m scared of’.

Laurent is attracted to the woman who’s written these thoughts. He is determined to find out who she is so he can give the bag back, and who knows…

Thus begins a lovely detective story, in which Laurent’s teenaged daughter will play a crucial role, he’ll be happy when his current girlfriend dumps him, and he’ll become a cat sitter – amongst other things. I shan’t say any more, because this novel is so delightful. Once we’re past the initial mugging, it is just a joy, upbeat and feelgood, full-on romantic and fun. Laurain (and his translators) balance the Gallic whimsy so well, I couldn’t help but adore this one after his second novel, but fifth to be translated, Smoking Kills (see here) left me a little underwhelmed (see here) earlier this summer. (10/10)

Source: Own copy  Antoine Laurain, The Red Notebook (2014, trans 2015) Gallic books paperback 240 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

10 thoughts on “Two in short: Tremain and Laurain

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The Tremain surprised me, compared with Restoration, and I really enjoyed it. I will look out for more by her.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Antoine Laurain was a big discovery for me, and this is the sweetest of his five now available in English. Highly recommended as a pick-you-up read.

  1. Really interesting to read your thoughts on The Gustav Sonata, Annabel – partly because I also read it for book group earlier this year. It actually divided opinion quite markedly within our group with a fair spread of positive and negative views across the members. (There are seven of us in total, and we often come at things from different angles which makes the discussion rather interesting!) Personally, I felt the novel started very strongly, but then got weaker as it went along. The opening section with the interaction between the two boys was very nicely done, as was the second section on Erich and Emilie’s troubled relationship. But the third section really didn’t work for me at all, I’m afraid – I just didn’t find it very believable. A pity, really, as it undermined the rest of the story somewhat. One or two other members of the group felt similarly, while others bought into it completely. The one aspect we all agreed on was the skill in the creation of that first section with the two boys – some great characterisation there.

    Anyway, fascinating to hear how it went down with your group. That’s all part of the fun of participating in a book club – to hear and discuss a range of different perspectives. 🙂

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      We had a ratio of 5:2 Loved/Meh in our Book Group. I tend to agree with you that the third section was the weakest, but when I think in terms of Sonata form, the Recapitulation where the original themes reappear, that both fitted but also constrained it.I still thought Gustav was a wonderful character though.

  2. I’ve read four of Tremain’s books now, most recently Rosie, her memoir of childhood. The Road Home was my favourite so far. I read a few reviews of The Gustav Sonata when it was on the Women’s Prize list and it didn’t seem to appeal, but maybe I’ll change my mind.

  3. I have to admit I’ve never read Rose Tremain either. Do you think this is a good one to start with (I like the familiar Swiss setting) or should I try something else?

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