Throughout the story, my opinion of several characters wavered back and forth between positive and negative emotions. Often, the characters seemed so manipulative, so immature, so cruel and mindless, that it seemed there was no room for kindness or compassion on the pages, and I wondered where the story would lead. I immediately disliked the main character who seemed like “a bad seed” when she was a child. However, first impressions are often incomplete, and when I closed the book, I suddenly smiled and chuckled with surprise, because the information revealed at the end is unexpected, and the hard tone of the story softens. The author hints at family secrets, but I never guessed what they were until the book uncovered them.
This is an interesting and well told tale that takes place in a small village in France, during World War II. Although the German occupation and a particular German soldier play a major role, the actual war itself is really part of the background, and it is more about the relationships of the characters to each other and the circumstances they share that affect them, each in their own way. The characters personalities are really exposed and the details of their interactions are examined carefully. Some of the characters will not be agreeable to the reader, but that is because the author does a really good job of defining their flaws.
When Mirabelle Dartigen dies, she leaves the abandoned family farm, in the village of Les Laveuses, to her son Cassis. He has no interest in it, and since he needs the money from its sale to pay his debts, he sells it to his sister, Boise (Framboise). The only other sibling, Reine, is in an institution, and is incompetent. Boise wishes to return to and restore the family farm, although more than half a century has passed since she was last there at the age of 9. She must return under an assumed name to avoid any connection to a scandal that involved her mother, during the war, which ultimately forced them to abandon the farm. She had memories of looking for “Old Mother”, a giant pike, that lived in the Loire. It had eluded all the other villagers. The legend said that if you caught her she would grant you your wish. This wishing moment had a tremendous effect on the future of the family.
Mirabelle had been a hard, bitter woman. She was a controlling, demanding, undemonstrative and unemotional single parent (her husband was killed in the war fighting the Germans). Subject to fits of anger and severe migraine headaches, often brought about by the scent of an orange, she had a sharp and biting tongue, and was often rude and capable of violence. There are similarities between Boise and Mirabelle. Both like to cook, both are stubborn and both have fierce tempers when pushed.
Boise, her brother Cassis, and sister Reine-Claude, walked on thin ice around their mother, not wanting to set her off. Theirs was a lonely existence. They had one friend to speak of, Paul Hourias, a seemingly dull witted boy about the same age as Reine. Their isolation made them devious and they even tormented each other, simply for its entertainment value. Eventually, they befriend or are befriended by a German soldier, Tomas Liebnitz, who is a self-serving young man, who uses the Dartigen family to feather his own nest while he enchants the children. The reader will be hard put to think of these children, or much that is related to this family, for that matter, as nice. They all seem to be scheming and self-serving without regard to the consequences.
Mirabelle left Boise an album filled with recipes and a coded kind of diary interspersed within the pages. It reveals the secrets of her life, and as the message is deciphered and Boise’s memories are examined, the story and its mystery begins to unfold. When she is finally settled and is running a wonderful little French Café in her home, using her mother’s mouth-watering recipes, she rekindles a friendship with her childhood friend, Paul. When, out of the blue, Cassis and his wife Laure come to call on her, pretending to be concerned about her, but really angling to get the family recipes, the anger she harbors toward her brother since childhood, explodes again.
Although it would be easy to chalk up the actions of all of these characters to immaturity, a lack of sophistication or a lack of intelligence, that excuse would simply be too easy and too convenient. The feelings Boise had toward the German soldier did not seem age appropriate. Her brother and sister seemed too naïve to not suspect that their behavior was very dangerous. Their innocence seemed too contrived. The cause and effect of their anger toward their mother seemed outsized and inappropriate, at times, since she wasn’t really intentionally cruel to them, she often tried to please them with special treats, but she was subject to seizure like headaches which brought on angry tirades and violent reactions and a need for medication which continued to grow and consume her.
The author will keep the reader guessing right up to the end of the story when all the missing pieces fall into place. Each of the characters, major and minor, have their own personalities, and they come alive for the reader. At time, Boise seems alternately malevolent, immature, but then, later in life, she is somehow more tender and soft, unlike her bitter and hard parent. It is a fast, engaging book that will please many readers.