The Rocheforts: A Novel

The Rocheforts: A Novel

by Christian Laborie



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504000772
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 05/05/2015
Pages: 484
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Christian Laborie was born in the North of France but has lived in the southern region of Cévennes for more than twenty years.  The Rocheforts  is his first novel to be published in English. 

Read an Excerpt

The Rocheforts

A Novel

By Christian Laborie


Copyright © 2012 Presses de la Cité
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-6120-8


The Man in Black

Nîmes, January 1898

The night sky was pitch black. The air was freezing, and the darkness absorbed all noise. Nîmes was plunged into the heart of a harsh winter, the kind that rarely happened more than once in a decade. The amphitheater was frozen under the dull glow of the moon. Church steeples rose up like giant crosses in a gloomy, unmoved sky. The world was petrified. Yet the narrow streets and wide boulevards were not covered in snow. The dry, icy winds had swept everything away, even the nauseating stench that usually rose from the seedier parts of town.

Only the hungriest of the light-footed night cats dared to venture under the streetlamps. Their mournful mewing died out in the basement windows where they sought refuge. Occasionally, a stealthy shadow brushed the walls and slipped into a mysterious alcove. On other nights, beauties in the brothels entertained disloyal husbands, men passing through, and soldiers on leave. But now even the brothels showed little signs of life.

Nestled in the hilltops, Nîmes jealously guarded its secrets, which were sealed in the thick walls of its ancient ruins. Centuries after the end of Roman rule, the city's upper class had made Nîmes a center of prosperous industry and trade. Several dynasties had taken root, achieving renown in finance, textiles, and the wine trade. As a result, opulent homes were numerous, despite a certain modesty imposed by the Protestant ethic.

A carriage coming from the train station broke the silence of the night. Hooves hammered the cobblestones. Their clip-clop echoed eerily between the walls of the sleeping houses. The vehicle, entirely covered in black leather, turned onto the Avenue Feuchères, heading toward the esplanade. It went around the amphitheater and climbed the Boulevard Victor-Hugo before pulling up to the curb a hundred or so yards from the Maison Carrée. A few seconds later, a man stepped down nimbly. He was dressed in black and wore a wide-brimmed hat. He tied the horse to a railing and walked to the rear door of a mansion. Nobody answered. Showing no signs of impatience, the man used the bronze knocker a second time.

The pounding drew the attention of an elderly fellow living across the way, an insomniac for whom the night was bad company. Curious, he approached his window, candlestick in hand, just in time to see the man in black disappear into the mansion.

"What is it?" grumbled his wife, torn from a deep slumber.

"Nothing. Go back to sleep. A coach stopped across the way."


"And nothing. A strange man got out. Then he disappeared."

"Come back to bed."

A few minutes later, the man in black reappeared. Under his arm, he carried a large basket wrapped in dark cloth. He carefully placed the basket in the carriage, untied the horse, and climbed into his seat. At a crack of the whip, the animal started moving.

The man then drove the carriage around the outside of the city at a slow trot, as if he didn't want to wake up the sleeping residents. The coach turned onto the Arles road, and only then did the driver crack his whip three times to pick up the pace. With its nostrils giving off steam in the icy air, the animal obeyed and galloped into the shadows.

Behind the convent walls, the Sisters of Charity prepared for Matins. The chapel bells rang three times to remind them of the day's first duty. In the strictest silence, they left their cells and walked along the cloister ambulatory with their hands together and their heads down in prayer.

Before starting the liturgy, the mother superior always counted her flock to make sure no one was still lost in Morpheus's arms. Although there weren't many nuns, Sister Angela felt compelled to check, just as she counted the children at the orphanage every morning. She ran the institution with a firm hand.

The outside world accessed the chapel via a windowless vestibule that had a small door fitted with an elaborately carved grate. Sister Angela jealously guarded the keys, as if they opened the way to heaven. In her God-fearing eyes, however, the door did not lead to heaven, but to a world of temptation, covetousness, and sin—Satan's world. Girls who entered the convent with the intention of taking their vows seldom used this door again. Once in the convent, they stayed, and most of them had taken their vows years earlier.

A second door led to a large slightly sloped hallway that was completely dark. The smell of incense and wax wafted from the chapel into this passageway after every service. It had seeped into the woodwork and impregnated the walls and ceiling. Sister Angela considered it a purifying bath for the young souls crossing the threshold for the first time. At the end of the hallway, a final door opened to another world, one offering redemption to those beings who had begun their sorry lives on earth in the gravest of sin: that of not being wanted.

There were nearly sixty Sisters of Charity orphans. Some were the bastards of highborn families. Others were poor children abandoned by hard-pressed mothers and fathers. The parentage of still others was entirely unknown. They all carried the misery of the world on their frail shoulders. Yet the world knew nothing of their existence. The nuns gave them a basic Christian education. Girls learned domestic work—sewing, cooking, and cleaning—while the boys tended the convent orchards and vegetable garden. The boys and girls crossed paths only in the chapel, where they attended daily Mass, and the classroom. They were not allowed to communicate or even look at each other. When they left their near-monastic existence, the orphans were expected to face the world without straying from the Lord's sacred path.

At the time, the city of Nîmes had no secular orphanage. As a result, the convent orphanage was at capacity, and the sisters were always worried that they would have to turn away a homeless child.

When the Matins liturgy ended, the nuns would return to their cells in silence to delve into Bible reading, contemplation, and supreme communion with God. Then, after a frugal breakfast, they would set about their respective tasks. Some were assigned to housework, others to gardening. Those with the most education taught the orphans, and still others were responsible for administrative duties. The day was punctuated by periods of group prayer and the daily office—Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline—which occupied them from predawn until deep into the night.

Sister Agnes was the last to pass before the mother superior as the nuns made their way back to their cells. When five knocks on the vestibule door echoed throughout the entire chapel, the young novice stopped and turned to Sister Angela. "Who could that be at this hour?" she said, looking worried.

Sister Angela maintained her stoic calm. At her age, nothing disturbed or frightened her. She lifted her left index finger to her lips, signaling silence.

Three more knocks resounded.

"Go see," the mother superior said to Sister Agnes.

Sister Agnes didn't move. She was scared to death. "You want me to ... "

"Yes," Sister Angela answered tersely. "You heard me. Go see. Open the grate, and see who it is. The devil is not going to jump out at you."

"Oh, Mother!" Turning pale, Sister Agnes signed herself three times.

"What are you waiting for? Go on, child. Toughen up."

The novice did as she was told. She crossed the chapel, her hands hidden in the sleeves of her ample white habit. She mouthed a prayer. Fear made her muddle the words.

Once in the vestibule, she waited a few seconds, holding her breath. She listened. On the other side of the door, she heard breathing. Whether it was a man or a woman, she could not tell. Her hand shaking, she reached for the grate. But a strange black vision stopped her. She felt as if she were about to face the devil himself. At this hour, it would never be a lost soul seeking charity. She quickly signed herself again. Her entire being trembled. This was the first time since she had entered the convent that Sister Angela had tested her, and her old fears haunted her.

Since the age of thirteen, Sister Agnes had battled nightmares and hellish visions. Her parents had consulted all the professors at the university. None had found any effective remedy for her anguish. Religion was her only refuge. In church, her soul could rise and her spirit could pull free of its heavy burden. That was why, at the age of eighteen, Agnes de Boisdèvre had entered the convent to lead a reclusive life dedicated to God and her fellow sisters. With the Sisters of Charity, she recovered the calm and inner peace that her fragile soul needed. The regimented simplicity of her new life in a realm divorced from the world gave her the stronger ramparts she needed against the psychoses she interpreted as clear signs of evil.

Still hesitating, she looked over her shoulder. At the back of the chapel, the mother superior stared at her. In her black habit, she looked like a shadow from beyond the grave. Her eyes were two steely slivers. Sister Angela pointed at the door, wordlessly telling her to do as instructed.

Sister Agnes gathered her courage and slowly slid the grate open. To her great surprise, she saw nobody on the other side, only the fading glow of a lamp. "Who's there?" she asked, her voice quavering.

She heard footsteps. Then two piercing eyes appeared in the opening.

"Finally," came a man's voice. "I didn't think anyone was there. I was going to leave."

"What do you want?" the novice said, still filled with fear.

"To see the mother superior."

"Why do you want to see the mother superior?"

"It's personal. Let me in."

"I cannot open the door without permission. This is a convent. No man can enter without authorization."

"So go get the mother superior, please."

"Sir, do you realize what time it is, that you are disturbing us in the middle of the night?"

"Charity keeps no hours, for God's sake."

Sister Agnes made the sign of the cross again. "Um, let me go see."

"Hurry! It's freezing. And what I have for you is fragile."

Sister Agnes closed the grate, gathered herself, and went back to inform Sister Angela. It's just a beggar, she said to herself as reassurance.

"So?" the mother superior asked.

"A man is asking to see you, Mother."

"At this time of the night?"

"That is what I said, but he insisted. He said charity keeps no hours."

"You did well, my child. You overcame your fear. I wanted to test you. I know that nighttime terrifies you. Do not forget that God is with you in everything you do, day and night. He is your greatest support. Go in peace now. Pray and ask Our Lord to enlighten your spirit so that you will no longer be afraid of the shadows. I will take care of this visitor."

"Thank you, Mother."

As Sister Agnes walked away, she looked over her shoulder. The mother superior was standing in front of the grate. She looked like a sentinel. The novice had a fleeting apprehension that the mother superior might be trying to keep the devil himself from entering.

At the door, the stranger leaned in close and spoke at length. After long minutes of negotiations, Sister Angela sighed and threw up her arms. She allowed the man in black to enter. He was carrying the basket that he had slipped into the carriage. He set it down on the cold marble tiles and handed Sister Angela a purse and a letter. The mother superior read the letter. Then she stuffed both the purse and the letter into the folds of her habit.

The man talked a few more minutes and turned around and left.

Through her cell window, Sister Agnes heard the horse break into a gallop. She tried to return to reading the Epistle of the Corinthians, which she had been studying for two days, but her mind was elsewhere. It was as if the visitor had taken possession of her thoughts. So she abandoned the Bible on its lectern and kneeled on the prie-dieu at the foot of her bed. She took refuge in prayer.

At the following office, she couldn't resist giving Sister Angela a questioning glance. The mother superior let nothing show. When dawn had illuminated the hills, and light had chased away the shadows of the night, Sister Angela went to see Sister Agnes in the study, where she was preparing a catechism lesson for the orphans she taught.

"Last night, my child, you heard nothing and saw nothing. Nobody came to our door." The mother superior's tone was firm.

The novice was surprised and nearly offended at the idea of having to commit the sin of lying, but she didn't dare contradict her mother superior. "Mother, I didn't see or hear anything."

"Very good, my child. I know I can count on your discretion."

That afternoon, while she was spending time with the other novices, Sister Agnes learned what had happened during the night. "This morning, we received a gift from heaven," Sister Theresa, who cared for the youngest orphans, joyfully announced. "A real little angel sent by the Lord."

"This morning? Are you sure?" Sister Agnes said.

"Yes. Not more than an hour ago, Sister Angela called me into her office to present our newest border: a baby who is just a few days old. Her mother was poor, lost, and completely distraught. She didn't have the means to raise the child decently without a husband, money, or work. It pained her to leave her child with us. Sister Angela told me all about it."

"A baby? A young mother?" Sister Agnes couldn't believe it.

"Yes. That's what Sister Angela told me when she gave me the little angel to care for."

As she had promised, Sister Agnes didn't say a word about what she had seen. She pretended to be surprised and happily welcomed the abandoned child.

"It's true that a tiny angel has come to us from heaven," she told Sister Theresa. "It's so cute! Is it a girl or a boy?"

"A boy."

"He is so little, so vulnerable."

"The cherub was just born."

"Barely born, and misfortune has already struck."

Sister Agnes understood that abandonment wasn't the child's only misfortune. While charity was abundant in the orphanage, affection was not. In this place, one did not find happiness shining in the eyes of the children. François de Boisdèvre, Sister Agnes's father and a benefactor of the orphanage, hadn't hidden the truth from his daughter when she decided to take her vows.

"The Sisters of Charity are saints," he had told her. "Their self-denial is limitless. Their generosity is immeasurable. They care for our good city's lost children with devotion that is only equaled by their love for the Lord. But they are disciplined and devoid of sentimentality. This does not mean they are insensitive to the suffering of the world. Their calling proves the opposite. These children have hard lives ahead of them and must be prepared. You can love them and guide them along the Lord's path. Pity, however, will only cripple them. Do not allow yourself to fall prey to it."

Sister Agnes approached the newborn's cradle and leaned over the child. "What is his name?" she asked her fellow novice.

"Vincent Janvier."

"Is that his real name?"

"No, his mother had not yet given him one. Since she gave him to us on Saint Vincent's Day, and we are the month of January, Sister Angela registered him under the name Vincent Janvier, born on January 20, 1898, two days before he came to us."

Sister Agnes pretended to believe Sister Theresa's story but privately wondered why the mother superior had stamped this new border's arrival with a seal of lies.


A Marriage of Reason

The Rochefort household was in mourning. Large black sheets covered the ornate façade of the mansion, which had been one of the most notable in Nîmes for two generations. A chapel had been set up in the small sitting room. The body of the deceased, visible underneath a veil of tulle, lay in a coffin made of the finest oak. Bronze and silver candelabras gave off subdued lighting, making the atmosphere all the gloomier. A profusion of floral wreaths and sprays attested to the sympathy of acquaintances and relatives. Loved ones took turns keeping vigil so that the poor soul would not be alone on its mysterious passage to the beyond, and receiving condolences from visitors, friends, and neighbors touched by the misfortune that had fallen upon one of the city's foremost families.

The deceased was the daughter of Anselme and Elisabeth Rochefort. The eldest of four children, she was only eighteen at the beginning of 1898, when death carried her away. All the family's close friends and relatives knew of her kindness. Catherine Rochefort had been a cultivated, joyful girl, always helpful and mindful of others' needs. But she had sometimes given the impression that she could not share in the happiness that she lavished on others.

The Rocheforts were expecting their fifth child when Catherine died. Some said that God was trying to compensate for what the unfortunate parents had lost when He had called Catherine. Elisabeth was due to give birth in the spring and had sworn that this would be her last child. She was nearly forty years old and felt she had fulfilled her wifely duty. Furthermore, the doctors had warned her about getting pregnant again. "You would be putting your life and the future child's life in danger."


Excerpted from The Rocheforts by Christian Laborie. Copyright © 2012 Presses de la Cité. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Rocheforts 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
BirdhouseBooks More than 1 year ago
The Rocheforts is an engrossing family saga. I have always loved historical fiction and family sagas, so I really looked forward to reading The Rocheforts. It did not disappoint! I really enjoyed the story of the intertwined Rochefort and Rouviere families. The Rochefort patriarch, Anselme, is not a sympathetic character, but his actions play an important part in the story. I found the characterizations in the book varied and interesting. The Rochefort dynasty is financed by denim. One of their major clients is the Levi Strauss Company in America. The passages about the denim industry were surprisingly fascinating. This is a long book and a big read, which I find very satisfying. (I am a fan of big books.) It moves from 1898 (prologue) to the 1930's in France. The historical details are fascinating. I would recommend this book for other fans of family sagas. It is engrossing, and would make a great vacation read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
With all of the reviews I thought this book would be great. Not so good. I am skipping pages to get it done. I sort of feel like this book has become an ordeal to be ovecome. Its ok but I wouldn't suggest it to anyone
MaraBlaise More than 1 year ago
It all started with a lie and a lie that decades later almost ruined two people's lives. This is grand family saga concerning two families, the Rochefort, owner of Rochefort Industries manufacturers of denim and the Rouvière, owner of a prosperous farm. Anselme Rochefort proposes to Donatien Rouvière that their families should unit, his son should marry Rouvière daughter. At first this seems like marvelous idea, but as the years go and the two families lives gets more and more get intertwined, despite that Anselme tries to stop it. He married of his son for a piece of land, but he doesn't want more of his children falling in love with any of the Rouvières. His greed could be the ruin of his family and a deep dark secret concerning his older's daughter's death could destroy the love of two young people. When it comes to books that are almost 500 pages long you really need a story, a good written story that can keep the readers interest up. Christian Laborie has really managed that. Even though the story of the two families' takes up decades as the children of Rochefort and Rouvière grow ups and new children was born it never really gets boring. I think one thing that makes everything work besides the good writing is that Laborie includes real life events like WW1. Reading a family set in a historical setting needs to in a good way incorporate everything that was happening around the time frame. The big secret wasn't that secret in my opinion, I just kept waiting for it to be reviled. But the ramification of it made the last part of the books really intense to read. I needed the truth to come out, it couldn't end so badly. This is actually a book that I really needed a Happy Ever After ending or else it would destroy me. I'm not a big fan of instalove, but damn it, some people just are meant to be! I enjoyed reading this book very much and I'm looking forward to reading more books by Laborie in the future.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ErinOhio More than 1 year ago
I really love a good family saga, or this case, an epic saga at almost 500 pages. Don’t let the length deter you though, as you might not even feel like it’s such a length once you start flipping the screen pages. It’s a translated novel, from French to English, and the author’s first English novel. But he’s an author of many other novels in France. Possibly with a writing-style much like most foreign authors, in which they tend to tell their story and be less visual, or maybe due to it being translated, it could be a bit more stiff rather than showy; however, I feel that it still is very readable as the character drama propels the reader. I used to love to watch the old family style sweeping historical mini-series showings on Masterpiece Theater, or other like channels, when I was a child. I still love them. But I do like books even better. Something about them really captivates me, as I enjoy reading of these rich and prosperous or such families in history. When I read the synopsis for this one, in which the family of Rocheforts, who live in de Nimes (and make denim, isn’t that cool where the word comes from?), and of the Rouvière,who are their farming neighbors, I was entranced already. I continued to be delighted upon reading. The novel takes us from 1898 and 30 years past, into the effects of World War I and the financial crash. We see the marriage of children in the family, adoptions, deaths, and the many facets of the political and social upheavals this time period brings. It also has some suspense at the beginning, which created a few mysteries, but one that wasn’t too difficult to figure out or was the main basis of the book. It was character and drama driven with good research into the history of the time period. It told of romance, economic class struggles, family issues, murder and mystery, politics, and industry. I thought it was interesting how all five Rochefort children had such different personalities and were all well-developed–some liked, some not. The character of the Rochefort patriarch was strong, as he was owner of the legacy and fortune (passed to him from his father), and also with one of his sons to whom he passed down his cold demeanor, and we see his terrible personality unfold as he strives to put back together a family fortune and reputation he’s all but lost. I did especially enjoy the sections on the textiles and denim, though, which was their business. The juxtaposition of the Rochefort’s industrial life was contrasted well against the life of the other family, who made their money off the land. We could easily see how personalities are made or changed with wealth sometimes and we see how intertwining such families really could cause future issues. Yet, we also see shining light of how it could work as well. There truly was so much happening in this novel, with twists and turns in regard to family and life struggles, so that the book was easy to remain attached to and that helped propel me through the novel. I love reading family histories, especially during this time period of major industrial and financial change. I’m not sure when this was originally published, but it reads like those wonderful family sagas from decades ago. I miss those, with the writing today that is so action focused. There is something to be said about this type of book. It had a vintage historical feel that I really liked and I enjoyed being able to slow down and read this book over time, without losing any momentum on it. I would highly recommend this book if you like dramatic familial novels, showing decades of ancestors with all their secrets, lies, and anguish. Personally, I love books about turn-of-the-century industrialists and how they lived, so I really liked this one. I can fully see why this novel was a best-seller when it first published in France. I was given this book in exchange for an honest review.