The charm of the book has a lot to do with the tone set by the narrator. During the hot summer of 1994 Lewis Little, aged 13, is visiting Paris for the first time. He and his translator mother, Alice, are staying with the best-selling Russian novelist Valentina Gavrilovich in her luxurious apartment so that Alice can get cracking on Valentina's latest medieval romance, translating it as it is produced. Meanwhile, Lewis takes the dog Sergei for walks, explores the city, thinks furiously about everything and everyone he encounters, and falls deeply in love.
The story is narrated by Lewis in the third person. We hear the inner voice running in his head. This is an accepted convention, but it has its difficulties. The inside of a person's mind is not a book. How would we read that? A novel is written, but this tradition of eavesdropping on private thoughts denies that. I decided to believe I was listening in on the conversations Lewis has right at the end with a person called Daniel, the only person, you imagine, that Lewis might finally be able to confide in about the tragedy that has befallen him. Poor Lewis, who starts out full of gaiety and wisecracks, eventually comes a cropper.
Such is Rose Tremain's skill that she simply bewitches you into believing what she tells you. It can be so rapturous, that experience of falling under the story-teller's spell and plunging into another world, accepting the illusion for reality, that you happily shelve all your doubts about whether the journey is actually possible. So although Lewis, as tour-guide to the Parisian landscape of the heart, is almost incredibly sophisticated and 50 times sweeter and nicer than many adolescents, you believe in him because you wish to. Lewis's observations on French street life and manners, and on the idiocies of grown-ups, are so drolly acute that you smile with pleasure. He even reads novels in French. What a doll.
Rose Tremain has a lot of fun with her various sub-plots. There's the secret door in Lewis's bathroom, the existentialist builder working on the roof who may be giving Alice extra philosophy lessons at night, the religion-mad Russian mother who knows the secrets of Valentina's past, the anguished writer in exile whose novels may be being plagiarised, the sweetie-pie father back home making a surprise for Alice and not realising what's going on, the maid Violette with her magical powers and her nostalgia for Africa, the kindly gay who helps Lewis solve the big mystery around which swirl and glitter all the others.
These characters are drawn with affection and amusement, perhaps most of all Valentina, a Colette-like figure with her voluptuous body, yellow satin sandals and sensual relish of the good things of life. Like Colette, too, she has a penchant for personable and wide-eyed boys, as Lewis finds to his delight. Sexy feelings burst up and explode like champagne froth in the pavement cafes, and you frolic along with it all. You too are in Paris, on holiday, caught in up heat and enchantment.
The mood abruptly darkens in the final third of the book, when events take a sombre turn. Perhaps because I was unwilling to let go of the sunniness that had gone before I found the melodramatic denouement hard to swallow. Read it simply as part of Lewis's fantasy, however, his need to play knight- errant to his beloved's languishing princess and to rescue her from danger, then you lie back and allow yourself to be convinced. Once more Rose Tremain beguiles you into suspending disbelief.