Two novels with a French connection – Chevalier & Magnan

The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

This was our Book Group’s choice for this month – ‘Blue’ being the key word we’d picked it by.  This was Chevalier’s first novel, published in 1997, and it is different to all of her others by having a dual timeline, following the stories of two women, centuries apart.

It begins in the 16th century in the Cévennes, in south central France. Isabelle is just about a teenager, and her hair turns copper in the sun, leading to her nickname ‘La Rousse’ after the local name for the Virgin Mary.  Isabelle loves the particular blue of their church’s statue of the Virgin and Child, and that blue will stay in her mind always. However, soon the village is converted to Calvinism, and they become Huguenots, it is no longer politic to be associated with Catholic icons, as Isabelle will discover, especially once she’s married into the Tournier family.

We then return to the present day, and a young American couple have moved to one of the walled towns in the area, near Toulouse where Rick is to work.  Ella and Rick are trying for a baby, but every time they have sex, Ella is haunted by a nightmare in which she is dragged into a room of blue.  She finds the blue in a painting by an artist Nicolas Tournier – and wonders if she is related – her maiden name being Turner, and having relatives in Switzerland named Tournier. This begins Ella’s quest, which will lead her into the Cévennes and up to Switzerland and Isabelle’s family, with the help of librarian Jean-Paul and his contacts.

I won’t explain more, but suffice to say Ella irritated the hell out of our group. We felt that all the other characters in the current day strand were more interesting than Ella, especially Mathilde who helps her with the Tournier genealogy. We all enjoyed the historical strand more, although parts of it felt underdeveloped, and the climax of Isabelle’s story was telegraphed from such a way off, it was no surprise.  That climax echoed in the present leaving a very dodgy plot device for Ella, which was just too convenient and should have had more consequences than it did. Nuff said on that.   (6.5/10)

I have read and enjoyed several others later books by Chevalier, including Girl With a Pearl Earring, and my favourite so far Remarkable Creatures (reviewed here). The latter is set in Dorset during the great fossil hunting era when Mary Anning discovered dinosaur bones.

Source: Own copy.   Tracy Chevalier, The Virgin Blue (1997). Harper Collins paperback, 352 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

Death in the Truffle Wood by Pierre Magnan

Translated by Patricia Clancy

Adjacent to the Cévennes is Haute-Provence, and this crime novel is set in a small village whose USP is the cultivation of truffles.  The first characters we meet are a star truffle-hunting pig and her master…

“Come on Roseline! Just one more? Dig me up another one!”
Lying on his side with his head resting on his hand and a blade of grass dangling from his lips, Alyre Morelon was stroking Roseline with words as well as gestures. And Roseline was giving little grunts of satisfaction while affectionately licking his beard with her tongue, which smelled deliciously of truffles.

Roseline is one star of this book. The other is Commissaire Laviolette who is sent to this sleepy village when several hippies who have set up a commune on the outskirts go missing.  A puzzling murder takes place in the third chapter, but the first body (a different one) turns up in the freezer of a local hotel about ten chapters later, followed by a group of others later.  The modus operandi are different, but they must surely all be linked, non? This is Laviolette’s job, as he goes around chatting, observing and doing much pondering, uncovering a host of rivalries, infidelities, avarice and superstition as he goes.

Written in the late 1970s, (translated in 2005), this quirky crime novel is full of great characters, united by their rivalry in the truffle business. Everyone, apart from restaurateur Rosemonde who becomes Laviolette’s confidante and love interest, has something to hide it seems – including the wives, and things get terribly complicated towards the end plotwise in only 200 pages. Laviolette is not a showy detective, imagine a younger, still single Maigret sans pipe in the 1970s and you wouldn’t be too far off. There is a resolution, but it hardly matters for this is a character-driven mystery.  Magnan also injects much humour – some light and plenty of dark – a tradition that other French authors like Pascal Garnier (see here) used to good effect in later decades.

Of course, you can’t have a French novel about truffles, without good food and Magnan doesn’t stint in this department, and his descriptions of Haute-Provence bring the area to life. The translation felt a little stilted in some places, but nonetheless I really enjoyed this book, and would happily read more from of Commissaire Laviolette’s casebook – at least one more title is available plus a couple of other crime novels by this author/translator combination.  (8.5/10)

Source:  Gift from a friend.   Pierre Magnan, Death in the Truffle Wood (1978, trans 2005), Vintage paperback, 208 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link).

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