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From Barnes & NobleThe Girl at the Lion d'Or
Sebastian Faulks isn't ashamed to build up the old truths of love and war. He writes modern classics, novels of a lost Europe filled with characters that readers can really grow to love. As in his bestselling Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, prewar France is the setting for The Girl at the Lion D'Or, a wistful and elegiac tale of love between a poor young woman and a sympathetic, aristocratic older man.
Janvilliers is a small town in the provinces, planted with tree-lined avenues and faintly perfumed with sea air. It has its iron-latticed train station, like anyplace else in France, and its little memorial to the First World War. It also has its central hotel, the Lion d'Or, where the townspeople gather to drink and eat their Sunday dinner. When a new girl arrives from Paris to fill the role of waitress, heads turn. There is something about her that is more alive than anyone would expect from a servant girl—something nobler and something beautiful.
But Anne herself is uncertain. Orphaned in her youth, she was deprived of the true affection that her passionate nature demands. She knows enough to rebuff the advances of Mattlin, a bachelor rake who tries to make her his personal trophy. She won't even give a second glance to Roland, the busboy who spies on her while she takes her bath. When she meets Hartmann, though—an elegant lawyer who has returned from Paris to rebuild his family mansion on the edge of town—Anne senses he is different.
Hartmann's own marriage is sterile and loveless; he finds he is strangely moved by Anne's loneliness. When he can no longer deny his growing affection for the girl, a vein of pity opens up in him that teaches him sympathy for the men and women of all the ranks of his society. He sees everyone, from washing women to government ministers, in their pathos and humanity.
The strength of the book lies in its embroidery of the central love story with studies of the minor characters who populate the Lion d'Or and the town. Roussel, the irresponsible foreman who excavates Hartmann's wine cellar, turns out to be a dreamy character, in ill health, struggling to pay his family's bills. The patron, Anne's unseen and terrifying employer, proves to be a gentle little man who can't leave his office because of agoraphobia. If anything, the characters are a little too individual (and too cute) in their eccentricity and pain, but that is Faulks's goal.
For everyone in the novel seems to be paying in some way for the terrible conflict of the First World War. Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, Faulks's best-known works, took their drama from the immediate tragedy of war. The Girl at the Lion D'Or is more restrained. It delves beneath the surface for the scars of the past and all the possible futures that have been lost. The traumatized hotel patron sends Anne to look at the Janvilliers war memorial. Mme. Bouin, the cruel overseer of the waitresses, still keeps a picture of her dead solider son on her nightstand; her sense of kindness, too, seems to have been a casualty of the front.
And Anne has a terrible secret. An incident in the First World War, when she was only a child, put a hole in what should have been a happy life. The resistance of her father to his officer's irrational orders—and the brutal outcome—cast a shadow over everything that followed. In the round of scapegoating that followed the armistice, even the daughter of a deserter was suspect. She was hounded from her home and hid her identity as a café waitress in Paris. With Hartmann, who is half-Jewish, she senses she can finally unburden herself of the persecution she has suffered in the past.
In his heart, Faulks is very much a member of the modern, skeptical school of writers about war. He believes that personal ties, love and family, matter more than the needs of the state—more than the demands of battle—more than anything. The torturous political situation of those uncertain years is something Faulks takes seriously, and the research he has done occasionally becomes obtrusive. Otherwise, the book coins classic entertainment from tragic material. It is a brisk read, but rich with atmosphere and seriousness.
About the Author
Sebastian Faulks was a journalist for 14 years before taking up writing books full time in 1991. Faulks lives with his family in London.