The Red Address Book belongs to a dying nonagenarian and is one of the most pleasant feature of the story, as it structures the chapters by important people in her life (almost all of them no longer with us). And what a life she has led! It includes two childbed deaths, a suicide, several orphans, a tragically lost love, a miraculous survival from a bombed military ship during WWII, a dead baby, a crazy French woman, a rape, sexual assault, and more, much more. If you can believe all the tragedies and lucky coincidences, you will love the book, as it’s told in a cheerful and engaging way.
I just could not believe.
Continuing from The Mystery of the Yellow Room, The Perfume of the Lady in Black follows the main protagonists to the aborted honeymoon of the couple in the first book — and to a most beautiful castle on a Mediterranean island not far from the French-Italian border. The gorgeous setting is only a foil for the darkest intrigue, amusingly ornamented by a crazy uncle who hunts prehistoric remains, just one more reminder of the vintage setting.
The story unfolds much like the previous book, with a locked room mystery, an evil character, and much intellectual reasoning about who is pretending to be someone else. The narrative relies heavily on the map of the castle, but the Kindle edition I was reading contains no such map, so it was quite confusing! And also a bit passe in the style of the detective inquiry, even if the plot is very twisted indeed.
Gaston Leroux, of Phantom of the Opera fame, wrote many other books including a series about a detective called Rouletabille, the first installment of which is The Mystery of the Yellow Room, in which a young woman scientist is savagely attacked in the yellow room of the title, a room that’s locked and at the door of which her father sat. Rouletabille, a young journalist, sets out to uncover the truth and finds that many actors in the French castle where the attack took place had secrets, some related to the crime and most not, and has to travel all the way to America to untangle the complicated motives and the shadowy author of the attack.
The book is over a century old, and moves at a very leisurely pace compared to modern mysteries — and most of the action takes place through deduction rather than direct investigation. It also appears that the next book in the series (which I will read soon!) is so heavily foreshadowed in this one that we already know its outcome. Still, a very enjoyable historical tromp.
It’s probably cruel to say that a memoir that includes cancer treatment and a family’s barely avoiding annihilation during the Holocaust feels very thin, and yet that’s what I concluded after reading There Are No Grown-ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story. I’m no fan of the author’s dismal Bringing up Bebe, but I was hopeful that her thoughts about aging would be less grating. They are, barely. She opens with a banal musing about being called “Madame” rather than “Mademoiselle” (does it sound less trite in French? I think not) and then shares a series of not particularly original thoughts such as “Wisdom can increase with age, but it’s not a given.” The main course is organizing a threesome for her husband’s fortieth birthday, a disturbing and voyeuristic description that I’m afraid her bebes may wonder about in a few years…
Don’t get me wrong, there are some sharply observed comments (about fashion for the no-long young in particular) and very funny moments about awkward social occasions. But surely as midlifers we know we could be reading something better.
Alert to you packrats: it may be a good idea to dispose of old correspondence before leaving this earth. Otherwise, your bereaved widow may plow through it to write the story of your life before you met her. (Of course, this presumes that (1) you wrote and received actual letters, you know, the kind with stamps on it, which few people do these days and (2) your widow writes biographies for a living.) The Life-Writer delves into her husband’s lost first love in exquisite, painful, and obsessive detail, culminating in a meeting with the French woman he loved and lost. A perfect book for ruminators. For me, not so much but I was carried through the first half, and maybe farther, by the beautiful examination of the woman’s grief.
Much better know for his Sherlock Holmes series, Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote historical novels, of which he was apparently very proud. The Refugees is one of them, and it ambitiously traces the picaresque adventures of a young American who travels to France, helps his Protestant friend survive many perils in procuring a priest for the secret marriage of Louis XV and Madame de Maintenon, and swiftly retreats to North America with friend, friend’s wife, and friend’s father upon the banishing of Huguenots from France. The French adventures are far-fetched — but what happens on the way back (iceberg, Indian attacks) seems utterly unbelievable. Add to that the totally helpless wife who cannot even see the fauna and flora of Canada without them being pointed out to her by her menfolk, and it becomes clear why Sherlock Holmes remains Conan Doyle’s legacy.
I will easily predict that All the Light We Cannot See will delight book clubs for months and years to come, and I will readily admit that the plot is finely honed and grabs the reader’s emotional attachment.
But. Do we need yet another book about WWII (I griped about WWI recently)? Isn’t a book that stars both a blind (French) teenage girl and a savant orphaned (German) teenage boy just a little too sentimental? Of course, the German boy loathes the Nazis, let’s make sure that all the proper feelings are displayed here. Of course the girl’s family is in the Resistance (the very bad neighbor is collaborating, but everyone else seems to also be in the Resistance!) And there is a completely insane plot about a lost jewel, with a curse attached to its possession, that seems almost completely irrelevant to the rest of the story.
What irked me the most were the caricatural and incorrect details. No scientist in an official museum would have a glass of wine in his office on a workday afternoon. At the nearby cafe, perhaps, but not in the office. Sandwiches are not, and certainly were not in the 40s, a proper lunch in France. And it’s not just the French details that beggar belief. How could an isolated orphan teach himself physics? It took me hundreds of pages to recover from these early stumbles and get back into the story.
A reassuring novel that tells us that good people and good and bad people are bad, in a moving way.