Artist Zackheim's debut novel uses a famiiar device, that of "detecting" fictional writer Violette LeDuc of wartime and postwar France and bringing her life to light. Sifting through the layers is a slow and sometimes tedious process, yet as the seemingly insignificant pieces, anecdotes, hastily scribbled notes, and actual writings appear, a life begins to take shape. Bare bones take on flesh; flesh takes on the subtle shadings of personality. Despite the sometimes formulaic writing, Zackheim has created multiple stories within the story, but we also come to know the "stories" of the biographer and of Lili Jacobs, one of Violette's friends, who is the keeper of LeDuc's correspondence and manuscripts. Lili's nightly stories of Violette's life, the "embrace" of Paris and LeDuc's contemporariesde Beauvoir, Sartre, Cocteau, and Gnetbecome palpable to the reader. Although the narrator remains, at times, almost transparent, the richness of place and time make this a good first novel. Recommended for larger public libraries.Kathleen Marszycki, Rathbun Free Memorial Lib., Wethersfield, Ct.
A muted and uninvolving first novel that juxtaposes the life and career of a neglected French writer, Violette Leduc (190772), with the purportedly parallel story of the woman who attempts to write her biography.
Zackheim's unnamed narrator, a painter whose marriage and career have rescued her from a traumatic girlhood, travels to Paris to research the life of Leduc, a now nearly forgotten figure who emerged from an obscure youth to become the intimate companion of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, and other famous postwar literary figures, and the author of a justly celebrated autobiography (La Bâtarde), among other books. The narrator's "research" is limited to her meetings with Lili Jacobs, an elderly Parisienne who with her husband knew Leduc during WW II. Their conversations about the war and the Resistance alternate with the narrator's unsurprising recollections of her own unhappy youth, restless "pilgrimages," and her family's complex European Jewish heritage. The protagonist's deep respect for the courage with which Leduc surmounted her own ignoble past (she was born illegitimate), lack of physical beauty, and years of poverty to become one of the most respected writers of her time fuels her own writing. But we aren't shown this: We're told it, in exhausting conversations and workmanlike summaries of facts Zackheim has all too obviously culled from sources listed in her "novel's" perhaps unintentionally revealing bibliography. Leduc, who surely was genuinely fascinating, is scarcely visible here. Instead we're given vague, clichéd paeans to Leduc's sensitivity and originality ("To Violette sexuality was an embrace of her life"). Only in the final 60 pages, when long-delayed information on the specifics of Leduc's life is finally conveyed, do we get a fleeting sense of the emotional urgency and intellectual drama that the writer's embattled life suggests.
The subject has great intrinsic interest, but the challenge of communicating something essential about Leduc, or about the sources of her art, has not been met here. A real disappointment.