Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Little French Bistro by Nina George

Last year I read Nina George’s wonderful novel, The Little Paris Bookshop, which was her first novel translated into English.  She had written some 40 books, and was considered an international sensation—except in the US where she was virtually unknown.  Now she has released her second novel, The Little French Bistro.  This novel is quite different from Bookshop, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I can’t wait for another.

Based on Paris Bookshop, I made several assumptions which proved to be false.  First, Nina George is not French; she is German.  I met her at a book reading in Book People in Austin Texas recently and learned she was born in Germany and still lives there with her husband.  Bookshop was not her first novel, but rather somewhere in an oeuvre of over 40 books.  She proved to be gracious and funny as she slipped back and forth among German, French, and English.  After the reading, she signed my books, and hugged every reader who wanted one.

Marianne Messmann is married to Lothar, a man with no sense of romance and a thoroughly unpleasant personality.  They have been married for about forty years, and Marianne has reached a breaking point.  George opens the novel with a chilling scene.  She writes, “It was the first decision she had ever made on her own, the very first time she was able to determine the course of her life. // Marianne decided to die.  Here and now, down below in the waters of the Seine, late on this grey day.  On her trip to Paris. […] The water was cool, black and silky.  The Seine would carry her on a quiet bed of freedom to the sea.  Tears ran down her cheeks; strings of salty tears.  Marianne was smiling and weeping at the same time.  Never before had she felt so light, so free, so happy” (1).  A homeless man rescues her, and she is taken to a hospital to contact her husband.  She then dresses and escapes on a train headed to a remote corner of northwestern France.  All the while on this trip, she plans to reattempt her suicide off the coast of Brittany.

A group of nuns give her a ride to the little fishing village of Kerdruc.  She meets a number of the residents, who welcome her with open hearts.  Each day she resolves to jump into the sea, but she delays a day, then another, and another.  She gets a job working at a bistro then gradually she is absorbed into the community.  Marianne begins to devise an entirely new life for herself.  Then Lothar shows up, and everything is threatened.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it is worth following Marianne to one of three possible conclusions.

Marianne is an empathetic woman.  George writes, “She took a deep breath, carefully picked up the crab and set it down on the polished steel table.  It scrambled around a bit as she searched among the bottles on the sideboard before reaching for the cider vinegar and pouring a few drops into the creature’s mouth.  The clatter of its pincers on the steel surface grew fainter before suddenly ceasing altogether. // ‘This may sound odd, but you can kill humanely too,’ […] ‘Vinegar sends them to sleep, you know.’  She cupped her hands to her cheeks, cocked her head and closed her eyes, then lowered the crab into the boiling water.’  ‘It’s bath time.  See, it doesn’t hurt so much’” (85-86).

Nina George has written a love story like few others in The Little French Bistro.  Kerdruc is a mythical place like no others.  I can only hope another novel will soon appear by this talented, funny, and interesting writer.  5 Stars.

--Chiron, 8/5/17

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