One settles into Tatiana de Rosnay's world with a sigh, comfortable that one's sensibility will be neither offended or challenged.
The journalist turned wildly successful novelist is hybrid French, English and Russian, but her territory is the Faubourg, the Haussmannian regions of Paris, which house the most effortlessly snooty bunch of aesthetes and elitists in the world. The phrase " bon chic, bon genre" was invented for the denizens of de Rosnay's fictional universe, and she has skewered them twice while they thrill to her every touch. No critic has ever been dressed in such sheepish couture.
Her first novel, Sarah's Key, sold millions of copies, in part because the key represented one of snooty Paris's worst secrets, the Vel d'Hiv. On that horrible day in 1942, the Paris police - on the instruction of the Nazis - rounded up 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, housed those with children without facilities in the Vélodrome d'Hiver arena for six desperate days, then shipped all of them to Auschwitz.
Well-heeled Parisiens promptly moved into the vacated apartments of Jewish families, seemingly without question. One of the French Republic's greatest shames, the event was buried in Parisian consciousness until 1995, when Chirac formally apologized, the Vélodrome torn down and a plaque erected to commemorate the disaster. De Rosnay was one of those who popularized the event, if event is the word for such horror, and her 2007 novel was particularly salient given the uprising of anti-Semitism in Europe. This last factor fuelled part of her success.
A Secret Kept is another matter altogether. De Rosnay doesn't abandon her milieu, nor her intent, nor her narrative device, the buried family secret. But with the book, she burrows deep into the Faubourg and starts to kick through the walls that imprison them all. Which is deeply satisfying in and of itself.
Parisian high society has managed to survive so long by posturing itself as irrelevant and dull. A clever ruse - perhaps triggered by 1794's Le Terreur - but it has meant that European aristocracies have, historically, craved comfort and security above any other thing.
Without wading too deeply into the French-English question, one can safely say that some English aristocrats were the chief proponents of the ideas of freedom and democracy, and that the American revolutionary ideal was in fact birthed by the then Anglo-Protestant elites of the United States and Canada.
In Britain, even today, someone with strong contrarian ideas can be taken up and celebrated by the Duke of Whatever or the Marquess of Itchybottom. In the Faubourg, confronted with the controversial, backs turn, noses are stuck firmly en l'air, habits and progresses remain unchanged. Europe has suffered greatly from its beau monde's disengagement from the messy business of politics and life.
In A Secret Kept, De Rosnay goes straight to the desiccated heart of the Faubourg. Her protagonist this time is a 45-ish architect, shucked by his wife, with a frosty star lawyer as his distant father and an icy set of grandparents. Antoine is so incapable of feeling his feelings, he is locked in what looks like permanent misery. His children show him contempt, his former wife, with whom he is still in love, is indifferent, his job bores the life out of him and his sister is a basket case, an unhappy 40-year-old editor with no husband, no children, who is having an affair with a married goat in his 60s.
He takes that sister on a trip to their childhood summer place for that 40th birthday, whereupon all hell breaks loose. On the way home, while trying to tell him the secret at the core of the frozen emotional life of the family, his sister drives them into another car and is left nearly dead.
Misery brought to such a head sets up a choice: Give up forever or solve the damn problem. The rest of A Secret Kept unfurls the secret life of the pair's mother, Clarisse, an unsophisticated beauty from a rural district of France who died young. One needs hardly to say that during this tortuous process, Antoine and Melanie not only learn who their mother was, but their own lives begin to flower.
The same cannot be said for their father and grandparents, in their stiff, gloomy but nonetheless staffed and luxurious flats. Most amusingly, Antoine, who by all rights should be a dreadful snob, falls head over heels with a dashing, leather-clad mortician who drives a Harley and is simply not interested in a) marriage or b) Parisian society.
Family secrets in fiction may have become a giant thumping cliché, but writers turn to them again and again for one reason: Breaking the code is the key to deliverance from the smothering hand of the past. A Secret Kept is one of the smoothest, most readable treatments around.
Elizabeth Nickson is a writer living on British Columbia's Saltspring Island.