Thursday, June 18, 2009

A million ways of looking at France

March Choice
A Place in Normandy
by Nicholas Kilmer
House of Peine
House of Daughters
by Sarah-Kate Lynch

The poet Wallace Stevens famously saw “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Thank goodness he did not attempt a poem about France for there must more than a million ways of looking this country. Two ways are revealed in this pair of books that could not be more different.

A Place in Normandy (published by Henry Holt & Co.) is the story of a house near Pont l'Evêque which has been in the hands of one American family for three generations. Now the author, Nicholas Kilmer, has to decide what to do with it. In one super-charged week he travels from his home in Massachusetts to France to view the house where his mother grew up and decide if he and his wife should take over ownership or put it on the market.

Kilmer is the author of a series of mysteries set in the art world and endeavors to cast this tale as another mystery: will they buy the place or not? What's happened to the old tray in the dining room? And where is the laundry? The only mystery that is not resolved by the end of the book is how Kilmer manages to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. He can get in a trip to the Landing Beaches in the morning, make an enormous lunch for guests, spend time painting, hike the woods and meet with a plumber or two in the afternoon and still get back into the kitchen in time to produce a gourmet dinner. (One other mystery: how did he get the plumber and carpenter there so quickly?)

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Kilmer is the scion of not just one, but two, illustrious American families. One grandfather, F. C. Frieseke, was an Impressionist painter, part of the colony of Americans artists who clustered around Monet in Giverny. He bought the house near Mesnil-sur-Blagny because of the beautiful light “found” in the Pays d'Auge. Kilmer's other grandfather was Joyce Kilmer whom every American schoolchild knows as the author of Trees, a poem that begins, “I think that I shall never see, A poem as lovely as a tree....” The elder Kilmer, like so many poets, it seems, was killed in the trenches of World War I and is buried in an American cemetery in the Marne.

At times, Kilmer overwrites, making the reader long to clear away the excess and get back to the story. Still, A Place in Normandy? How can we resist?

House of Daughters (House of Peine) by Sarah-Kate Lynch is a froth of a book, which is, undoubtedly, to be expected from a novel about a champagne house and the three women who inherit it. You may also find Lynch listed as the author of House of Joy (UK) and House of Daughters (US) - they are one and the same book, just different titles in different countries. Although Peine is the New Zealand title, I'm using it for the nice irony it gives French-speakers. All “three,” however, have been optioned for a movie, as have two earlier books by this New Zealand author. Now, for full disclosure. Lynch's book was given to us by a bookseller friend, and we soon discovered why. In the “acknowledgments” she credits Wine & War: the French, the Nazis and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, the book I wrote with my husband, as being one of her inspirations.

Throughout the book I ran across scenes I knew very well, having already written nearly identical ones, like how to seal someone into a wine barrel in order to sneak him past German soldiers. Since it's said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I'm not going to give this book a bad review! It's a cute book, a couple of steps removed from “chic lit,” but those two or three steps include fun information about champagne and how it's made, as well as nice descriptions of Champagne, its people and the passion of vignerons. The story centers around three vastly different daughters, how they cope with each other and the death of their unloved father. You get a bit of insight into French inheritance laws, too. It's a light-hearted read with plenty of twists and turns before the happy ending arrives leaving you might thirsty for a glass of champagne.

by Petie Kladstrup