BOOK REVIEW / Hard sell and sour aftertaste: Hotel Pastis - Peter Mayle: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99
Sunday 30 May 1993
Hotel Pastis shows a greater marketing awareness than a Saatchi's annual report. It comes with a bookmark offering a pound off a bottle of Ricard pastis; the sign of the eponymous hotel, reproduced on the front, is in the colours of the Ricard water jug, described on page 140; and in case there is any confusion over brand reinforcement it is dispelled on page 17 when a character asks for 'Pastis. Anything but Pernod.' British off-licences already sell 'A Year in Provence' wine. Now, here is the first Ricard novel. Poor Graham Greene. How much more market penetration could he have achieved with a Famous Grouse priest in The Power and the Glory ('Anything but Bell's,' he gasped).
Mayle recently made the the New York Times's bestseller list with a short book of essays in praise of luxury goods. Now, like the camera of an adman-turned-director that cannot tear itself from the product-placement opportunities of a rich interior, he offers 16 brand names in the first 10 pages of his novel. The fictional freedom to invent seems to frighten him. He has declined to take on characterisation or plot. A middle-aged advertising executive who leaves London for Provence is the main player (ring a cloche?). He has occasional cruel or venal moments, but these are not assembled into a personality. Nor is there a storyline, though there is a sequence of unrelated incidents in the last 30 pages.
While Mayle's Provence books were admittedly boring, they were, if such a thing is possible, pleasantly bland and boring. One felt mildly envious of his enjoyable life, and of the way he turned plumbing stories into cash. But there is nothing pleasant about the tedium of Hotel Pastis: this is hard labour for a full 313 pages of franglais, the monotony broken only for sour little bits of what appears to be score-settling. There is a condom scene which harks back to the glory days of Mayle's book about a talking penis, Wicked Willie; the local village is called Brassiere-les-deux-Eglises. These jollities apart, there is hardly any attempt at humour.
There is something cantankerous and grasping, as well as dull, about this book. You can be a guileless good-lifer in Provence who writes a surprise bestseller or you can make your fortune as a marketing man, but you really cannot have it both ways with your Ricard tie-ins. Escape from Madison Avenue, my pied. At least the fellow in the book goes back there at the end.
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