Harper Collins, €10.50
This is a lovely book from the author of 'Girl With A Pearl Earring' about life in France; it has the intimacy and charm of 'A Year In Provence' without the construction headaches. The book is a mix of history, art, witch-hunts and religion. It is fast-paced, well plotted and will keep you guessing.
Chevalier tells the tale of two women, born centuries apart who are linked through blood and a common history. The book opens with Isabelle du Moulin, a tormented young woman living in seventeenth century France. Isabelle has been nicknamed 'La Rousse', after she was visited by the Virgin Mary and her hair turned red. She is punished because of her faith and shunned by the community. Life becomes even more difficult when her only sister dies during childbirth and her mother is bitten by a wolf and dies, she wonders has she been cursed to a life of loneliness and hardship.
Isabelle becomes pregnant after an ill-fated fling with a local man; she is forced to marry him much to the chagrin of his family, and is never allowed to forget her past. Then political events in France force the family to flee to Switzerland. At first life seems promising, but gradually old problems return and her children suffer at the hands of her cruel husband and his mother. Her youngest daughter Marie disappears, Isabelle is inconsolable and is forced to make a life-changing decision.
Every second chapter is set in modern day France and follows Ella Turner, an American who has moved to the south of France with her husband. Ella struggles to learn a new language and adapt to a different way of life, but she is made to feel unwelcome by the local people. Weary and desperate for something to do she decides to trace her family history while also trying to have a baby. But soon she starts having frightening dreams that seem to be trying to tell her something.
Then Ella meets a French man; he is a researcher in the local library, at first he is cold and unfriendly but gradually he warms to her and helps to trace her family's roots. She travels to Switzerland and meets her distant relations. Once there she discovers a cousin who is pregnant and is also experiencing the same nightmares. At the same time Ella's hair begins to turn red, confused and alarmed she is determined to solve the mystery.
Chevalier understands the loneliness and hardship of moving home and trying to make a new life in a foreign country. Through Ella she explores the plight of the American abroad, desperate to be accepted and also proud of being a strong independent woman.