As I wait for Anna Gavalda, France's most successful popular novelist, I'm given an insight into Parisian lunching etiquette. Eurostar has just bundled me out into the bustling Gare du Nord station. A text from Gavalda apologises for her running 15 minutes late. No problem, I reply. A smiley emoticon pings back. So I settle in to the tinkle and clink of the Terminus Nord brasserie to await her arrival. All around, ladies who lunch position their furs and impossibly dapper men of a certain age tip champagne and scoop oysters. In the lovely 1920s surroundings, a hubbub of chatter and rushing waiters play out to a stage-set of glinting Art Deco mirrors and murals. It is both refined and habitual in the way that only the French approach dining.
Gavalda appears at my table full of self-castigation and breezy bonhomie. Sitting down, she admits that they know her here and, looking at the menu, declares that, "Everything is good, everything." She proceeds to talk me through the specials. She is a tall, willowy 39-year-old, sleek in ebony layers and entirely without airs. For Gavalda, our lunch is bookended by a funeral and a radio interview. Her unflappability is as elegant as her collar.
Gavalda's third work of fiction to appear in translation, a hefty novel called Consolation, arrives in UK bookshops this month. The French title, La Consolante, refers to the runners-up play-off in a boules tournament. It is, she says, "a very, very nice moment when all the games are done and you are playing for fun yes, but also for l'élégance. There is no loser and no winner. It is just for the sheer pleasure." In the book, Charles Balanda is a successful fortysomething architect living with an unfaithful lover and her teenage daughter. He is a man searching for a life-affirming second toss of the ball. When he learns that Anouk, the mother of one of his childhood friends, has died, his life slowly begins to unravel. Anouk's place in Charles's past, and heart, is one mystery; another is the cure for his present ennui.
Consolation is almost two books in one: the first detailing a man's collapse, the second his redemption. It is at times a deeply melancholy work, more so than her previous novel Hunting and Gathering (Ensemble, c'est tout), and reads as if its author was trying to stretch her talents. "It was very hard to write, because the first part is very dark, you know, and the second was easier because it is always easy when things are lighter," she says.
Although she thoroughly researched her protagonist's profession, her focus was always on the emotional constructs within the story. I ask whether buildings hold any particular appeal for her. "No," she replies. "I think that people are more interesting than buildings."
Gavalda has written a paean to people sitting in the last-chance saloon. As a single mother of two, who divorced when she was still in her twenties, does she see herself at just such a juncture? "Not yet. Well, maybe, yes. Life..." There is a glimmer of rumination in her response but the poise quickly returns. She acknowledges that her youthful divorce has created an odd situation, but there is none of Charles's untethered panic. She and her ex-husband "were just mismatched" and she is amused by how her past remains with her through her children. "You know, my son now looks so much like his father, it's crazy," she says. "Even in the very small details, even in the way he lifts his fork to his mouth."
Charles is the latest in a long line of unhappy men to appear in her books. Is it her view, then, that men are dissatisfied and melancholy by nature? "Not men; human beings," she clarifies. However, when pushed, she acquiesces. "Women have a gift for life. They know how to turn on the light. But no, it is true that this book is about a man getting over unhappiness. And it is always the same old trick. Love. I tried to find something more original to help him go through all this, but love is the only thing that works."
Hunting and Gathering was filmed, with Audrey Tautou headlining. In a rather sniffy piece in The Telegraph, Amanda Craig suggested that Gavalda's success was due to "the Amélie effect", a fashion for quirky, amber-hued takes on the Gallic dream. It's hard to tally the criticism with an author who has penned a short story such as "Catgut" (from the collection I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere), in which a rural vet is gang-raped only to take her revenge by literally neutering her attackers. ("I pulled out the testicles. I cut. I ligated the epididymis and the vessel with catgut No 3.5.") It is a knuckle-whitening piece of prose. "It's all true. The real story is even worse," Gavalda informs me.
Preconceptions over Gavalda's books have always plagued her English translations. Random House has positioned her fiction with packaging firmly set in the chick-lit genre. Each sports a jacket fit for the Marie Claire readership. "They are mad for the marketing. I am published by a very small publishing house here and they don't do anything like this. Why do they do that?"
Interviewing Gavalda is a little like making supper for Heston Blumenthal. She frequently has the upper hand. It's not long before she has me admitting that I can't drive and I struggle with borderline OCD and myriad other failings. Les roles sont renversés. Yet this subversion illuminates her skill in capturing human nuance. Take this brief exchange:
"You don't smoke?" she asks.
"Only when I'm stressed."
"Ah. So you DO smoke!"
And again when I suggest that men read to escape but women read to find answers: "Interesting," she smiles. "You have a theory but not a driving licence."
I'm not entirely sure how this happens, although, as a secondary-school teacher (until recently she worked in a school in the suburbs of Paris), Gavalda has that Mr Chips quality of self-possession, bestowing a "Really?" or an expectant "Yes?" when someone is on the cusp of revealing a personal detail.
Her literary tastes are broad but remain anchored to the maze of human failings and reclamations. Of French fiction she likes "Flaubert, Balzac, all the great novels" but personally she aligns herself with the novelists Anne Tyler and Nick Hornby. It's an astute comparison; all three share the ability to create intelligent dramas with a witty sideline in banter-driven dialogue.
Another, more experimental novel recently tickled her. Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris chronicles a broken love affair through the lots of a couple's auctioned possessions. It is a book about the ephemera of amorous existence. "I loved it," says Gavalda. "What a good idea. Nothing is said but everything is said." Indeed, what is or isn't said often lies at the heart of her stories. She has also just enjoyed Russell Banks' latest and I comment that her fiction shares Banks' bittersweet take on life. It is, I suggest, romantic, but in a harsh way. She shifts back in her chair and slaps the table. "Yes, yes, another wonderful theory, Mr Christian," she exclaims.
Gavalda's stock in trade is the endearing oddball. Her characters' peccadilloes drive the narrative engine as much as plot delivery. Conversation turns towards the manic passions of obsessives. "Je t'adore these people," she says. "They are inspiring to write about. They are crazy. They are sweet. They are sweetly crazy or crazily sweet." She has a particular fondness for collectors, the societies of geeks who attend fairs and conventions. Does she collect anything? Two beats, enough time for a carafe to be finished at the next table, and she replies. "I collect good memories."
As the interview wraps up with espressos and her recommended orange and Cognac pancake, Gavalda gets it out of me that my girlfriend is waiting at another brasserie. ("Oh, the poor darling, don't you want to call her?") Within minutes she has the number dialled and invitation proffered. A few more minutes and Gavalda is juggling the photographer's requests, my girlfriend's introductions, the maître d's bill and my awkwardness. Magnifique, as they say in the city of light.
Consolation, By Anna Gavalda trs Alison Anderson (Chatto & Windus £12.99)
'...The promising architect had become a little stonemason as he rose through the ranks. He was a regular Mr Fix-it for his colleagues when they needed help in English; he did no more drawings, clocked up his frequent-flier miles at an alarming rate and fell asleep lulled by the gentle drone of warfare on CNN, in hotel beds that were far too big'