In 2004, Hunting and Gathering was, along with The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter 5, one of those books you kept seeing in the Paris metro during rush hour, its thirtysomething, mainly female, readers alternately smiling or dabbing moist eyes. With sales of half a million in France, and translated into 30 languages, the novel is now being filmed with Da Vinci star Audrey Tatou.
Would a synopsis explain such success? Let's try. Downwardly mobile Camille Fauque has abandoned an artistic career to work as a cleaning lady in an office. Living in a tiny, freezing seventh-floor walk up, she's on the verge of collapse, suicide even. Anorexic, she is saved by her neighbour Philibert Marquet de la Durbellière. Handicapped by an alarming name and worshipful of his anti-Republican ancestors, the aristocratic Philibert is out of touch with modern life, but his bad stammer, and his job selling postcards, makes him more an amiable nincompoop than a far-right crank.
Camille moves into his vast apartment full of Wedgewood porcelain and Third Empire armchairs, but has to reckon with the lodger, cordon-bleu cook Franck Lestafier. Working-class Franck is a skirt-chasing ogre, thinks Camille "looks like a bloke", but surely his effing and blinding is just a front? He too has been damaged by a miserable childhood. Also, his beloved grandmother Paulette is dying in a grim old people's home. Camille suggests she move in too.
Will Franck overcome his aggression and woo Camille back to life with proper food? Will Philibert master his stammer? Who will fall in love first? Each short chapter of this fairy tale/soap ends with a tiny emotional rush as the protagonists accumulate victories over their trauma and learn to love one another.
Paulette teaches Camille to make decent soup, Franck learns to respect the nerdy Philibert, who battles his shyness by becoming a clown. It's all very slow, and sometimes the translation can be strange. The "upper vaults of Père Lachaise" must denote tombs on the cemetery's heights. And a sentence like "the pedestal of the genius on the Bastille" must refer to the Spirit of Liberty statue which tops the column there.
No matter. Gavalda has said she writes "for people who don't like reading". Which is just as well. An old Chinese man "is jabbering and laughing to himself", a beggar has an "outstretched hand and a whiny plea", locals in a village are "stereotypical country folk". This is shorthand, and somewhat snobbish. Similarly, Gavalda's Paris is a city where the immigrants with whom Camille works are overweight, with big life-affirming laughs, so trivial that you half wish the suburbs would rise up again.
It's not all comedy: Paulette dies, and life goes on. But wait - she first bequeaths Camille the country house of her dreams, "with a copper pot for making jam" and "a well kept little garden". Such middle-class longing calls to mind the closing of Voltaire's Candide, where the hero exhorts us to cultivate our gardens. But Voltaire was pulling our leg. Candide is a starry-eyed idiot whose idealism is dashed to bits by the horrors of absolutist Europe. His resignation is inevitable. With Gavalda, resignation, a longing for stasis, is a virtue. That she has a worldwide audience suggests she has tapped into a mood which many people share.
Gerry Feehily's translation of Pavel Hak's 'Sniper' is published by Serpent's Tail