THE LOOKING GLASS
Traditional British storytelling expertise merges with the peculiarly French appreciation for sensual pleasures in the work of novelist Roberts, who lives in both countries and is a bestselling writer in England.
Her 11th novel, the second to be published here (after Impossible Saints), is a period piece with psychological overtones and an impressionistic palette. Elegant and poetically descriptive, it evokes the seacoast of Normandy in the early 20th century, when horses and carts were still the local means of transport and superstition vied with religion for the souls of the inhabitants. The principal narrator, named Geneviève Delange by the nuns in the orphanage where her first 16 years were spent, hires out as maid-of-all-work at Madame Patin's cafe/bar, the only grocery and gathering place in the fishing village of Blessetot. When "cousin" Frederic Montjean arrives, Geneviève is dismayed that Madame Patin becomes his lover and marries him. The title refers to a full-length mirror in the bar that is a novelty to Geneviève when she first arrives, and is the means of her undoing. After a near-tragedy, she goes to work in the Colbert household, consisting of a formidable matron; her son, Gérard, a poet; and her granddaughter, Marie-Louise. A British governess called Millicent cares for the child and in due course falls in love with Gérard, whose longtime mistress, a seamstress named Isabelle, now reappears in his life. These two women tell their stories, and Geneviève, who also adores Gérard, concludes that she must tell hers. "Speaking and telling, you threw joy away," Geneviève realizes, and innocence, too; it is fitting that the narrative ends in 1914, on the verge of WWI. Roberts's measured prose is richly suggestive, artfully conveying mystery and passion. The quiet unfolding of this keenly observed tale should please discriminating readers. Agent, Gillon Aitken. (July 11)