Jerome lives with his teenage daughter, Marina. His wife, Paula, left him some years ago, apparently through boredom and the desire to live a more exciting life than her marriage to a rural estate agent gave her. Jerome is a quiet, introspective man who takes a long time to let his feelings come to the surface, but when Marina’s best friend is killed in a road accident, he finds himself overwhelmed with grief and assailed by emotions arising from his own past life.
Agnès Desarthe has written a complex story here which works on several levels. We read of the disruption to Jerome’s well-ordered life as he confronts deep issues from his childhood. The book reflects on the intense emotions of a teenager and their ability to bring chaos to themselves and those around them. But also, this is a story of how random events can bring powerful change into a seemingly settled life, launching it in unexpected new directions.
Jerome has a complex biography. He is a foundling – the police found him wandering in the woods in 1956 when he was a little boy. He seemed to be a forest child, adapted to life among wild things. Many years ago his adopted mother told him,
I remember the light so clearly, dappled sunlight everywhere, peeping through green leaves, line in a fairy tale. . . then when we were just comoing out of the woods, the sound of twigs grew louder, but I didn’t turn around. And then the exact moment we stepped out of the woods, I felt a little hand in mine. In my left hand I was holding your father’s hand and in my right, the hand of my little woodland darling.
His adopted parents proved to be loving and kindly people, but nobody ever got to the bottom of why Jerome was in the woods and who had left him there. The past however is about to catch up with him when he meets a retired policeman who is doing some freelance investigation of his own into the accident that killed Marina’s boyfriend Armand.
Jerome finds himself as much affected by Armand’s death as is Marina. Agnes Desarthe writes of how grief comes upon the small household of father and daughter as they move through the rituals of being comforted by friends and family. Marina’s mother Paula comes to stay for a few days, causing considerable anguish to Jerome – she left him a few years ago, leaving a level of emotional pain in his heart that he has failed to come to terms with. Although Jerome has looked after his daughter since Paula left, as is so often the case, the absent parent becomes a comforting reference point for the stricken child and soon the female companionship leads to a betrayal of Jerome which he finds impossible to deal with. The author captures Jerome’s frustration
He feels powerless and completely disorientated. Sentences come to him about how difficult it is living with women, the fight it entails, the feeling you keep showing, the pathetic little games of seduction and then afterwards: the dolls’ house, making babies. Making them, yes, fine, it’s all fireworks, pride and superpowers, but after that you feel knocked back, slowed down by all those endless, boring, repetitive tasks. The way you talk to each other as if to a colleague, to a nurse, to a dog.
The book is not all emotional pain and the experience of loss however. Jerome is an estate agent, and one of his customers provides some light relief throughout the book, leading him around the countryside and eventually settling into an old dilapidated piggery. The slightly wild personality of this woman acts as a useful counter to Jerome’s introspection and it is interesting to see how the author brings these two together to provide a touch of humour in her novel.
This is a complex novel, but not difficult to read. Although it a rather Gallic intensity surrounds the main theme of grief and loss, the investigations into Jerome’s background and the dealings with the estate agency do anchor the novel in the real world of tangible affairs. This balancing is rather skilfully done, granting the book a level of interest which it would not have had had is focused only on the events surrounding the death of a young man.
The Foundling deserves to be successful – certainly I am grateful to the excellent Portobello Books for introducing English speaking readers to this fine French writer. I am not qualified to offer technical comments on the translation (by Adriana Hunter), but I will say that the book reads elegantly and seamlessly with no clues that it might have originated in a language other than English.