Piers Le Gris is a Canadian thriller writer living in exile who rents a room in a once-grand mansion in the French city of Avignon and develops an affectionate friendship with his older landlady. Nelly is an independent, elegant woman widowed after a short marriage and haunted by her first, unrequited love. Nelly is somewhat enamoured of Piers, and undone by her feelings. They have their platonic Friday-night chats over wine and routine moments at the breakfast table. Piers works at night, holed up in his room drinking espresso and churning out page-turners heavy on plot and low on adjectives for an editor in London. Piers keeps his cards close to his chest, and we don't know why his name doesn't match the one on his passport.
Enter Magali, the 17-year-old daughter of Nelly's first cousin, in the Lolita-like role. "At seventeen, Magali was sure adults were little more than prisoners of their addictions, families, and jobs, which is why they liked to lecture the young. More of them had taken a wrong turn somewhere, or were convinced they had."
When Magali arrives to attend university and board with Nelly, she immediately piques Piers's interest, which Nelly just as immediately resents. Magali has a teenaged suitor, Mouloud, a young Moroccan who is the son of her grandfather's hired labourer. After she ends their relationship, he follows her to Avignon, where he gets in trouble and violence ensues.
All three main characters have secrets, all have made mistakes with love and all regret previous choices, as they negotiate their single beds and single rooms in the large house, circling each other both by accident and on purpose.
It is not surprising to me that Ackerman has a background in theatre. The house comes alive as though it is a set. Ackerman is adept at creating a scene, writing keen dialogue and setting up action. The trouble with a novel that reads much like a play is that it is often difficult to get to know all the characters well; it feels as though there is too much going on at once to truly engage deeply with all those involved.
Magali appears as a sketch of a girl, without much that sets her apart from any other young, beautiful 17-year-old, and her choices are often a little convenient for the plot that drives the back story, the mystery of Nelly and Magali's grandfather during the Second World War. Piers is present enough to keep the reader intrigued, and his parental concern and affection for both Magali and Mouloud make him somewhat distinct from the cliché of an older man pining for a teen girl. Nelly is drawn expertly; her passages are compelling and richly presented. When she writes a memoir about her first love, there are breathtaking moments of authenticity.
Though the novel is set in the final months of 1999, history roots the characters, both Piers's obsession with the 14th century and Nelly's memories of the Second World War. Past and present narratives often weave together beautifully, with themes that echo through the years, of the choices of youth and the repercussions in later years.
But while history often enriches, especially the descriptions of Avignon's impressive architecture and narrow stoned streets, there are moments when the text becomes bogged down with textbook-like historical details. The second paragraph of chapter three begins with "Civilization advanced slowly," followed by almost two pages of historical descriptions of the papal years. While Piers "never tired of expounding new details from his ongoing research," readers may not be as interested in the fine print, and a tighter edit might have eased the flow of information into a more seamless story.
Zoe Whittall's most recent novel, Holding Still For As Long As Possible, has just been optioned for a film adaptation.