THE LITTLE FRENCH BISTRO
By Nina George
Crown, $26, 320 pages
Novels about women leaving a dismal marriage are legion. One of the first in English was Anne Bronte’s “Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” whose heroine Helen takes her young son and runs away from her alcoholic husband. This was published in 1848 when divorce was not possible, and legally the child and any property the wife might have owned belonged to the father.
Helen therefore must live a secret life to protect her boy and herself. Bronte was taking aims at the cruel failures of the law to protect women and their children. Nowadays, novelists who take up the theme of the wife who abandons her marriage have no need to argue in favor of divorce. Instead they interrogate a relationship, asking implicitly or explicitly what shortcomings justify the wife’s departure.
Lothar, the husband in The Little French Bistro, is unintelligent, unkind, unloving, unfaithful, and the sun at the center of his own universe. Marianne, his 60-year-old wife of 41 years leaves him in a Paris restaurant and walks straight to the Seine and throws herself in. She’s rescued and taken to a hospital, where she finds a tile painted with an enchanting view of Kerdruc in Brittany. Marianne decides she must see it before she dies, and off she goes. Her Plan B is to commit suicide there. But she loves the village, immediately gets a job in a restaurant, and soon makes friends with the locals.
They all have problems ranging from holding long-term grudges and failure to communicate their feelings to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer. Marianne proves herself adept at helping them, and the more she’s involved in life in Kerdruc the more she discovers or rediscovers her own talents. She has her hair styled and wears the red dresses and high heels Lothar had forbidden. She relearns the accordion she had been forced to abandon. She shares her useful cooking skills. She is even taught to think she has spiritual powers.
She reflects, “How many deviations, side roads and senseless detours a woman can take before she finds her own path, and all because she falls into line too early, takes too early the paths of custom and convention defended by doddering old men and their henchwomen — the mothers who only want the most dutiful outcomes for their daughters And yet life as an autonomous woman is not a song. It’s a scream, a war; a daily struggle against the easy options.”
In short, Marianne discovers her talents, her desires, her needs. In this sense, “The Little French Bistro” is a coming-of-age novel. More usefully it’s a pastoral novel with Kerdruc being Marianne’s Arcadia where she can put previous sorrows behind her. It’s useful to see the book in this way because it reveals it as a fantasy — albeit a contemporary fantasy in which life in a bistro kitchen in a pretty fishing village replaces the classic dream of life as a shepherd living with one’s love.
But all fantasies do psychological work. That work is obscure at the beginning of this novel because Marianne’s departure from the Paris restaurant and her arrival in Kerdruc are generated by scarcely credible narrative choices rather than her character, which is barely sketched. Author Nina George is therefore compelled to introduce a large, sometimes confusing, cast of Breton characters whose problems and actions determine what Marianne does.
Eventually though Ms. George’s grip tightens. Though she sketches an enviable existence in Kerdruc, its denizens still die and thoughts of death put steel in Marianne’s backbone. The last quarter of the novel is a gripping account of an older woman who has made bad decisions thinking through what to do next. In brief, the psychological work of this novel is to remind its readers of the transitoriness of life.
As fundamental and serious as that matter is, “The Little French Bistro” is unlikely to live as long in literary memory as Anne Bronte’s pioneering expose of the problems faced by women in appalling marriages. But it is worth reading — more worthwhile than its rather weak opening suggests — because it develops a convincing ethos about the value of living one’s life to the full.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.