Left Bank, by Kate Muir

Cultural fireworks and cultured affairs of the haute bourgeoisie
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The Independent Culture

The "cinq-à-sept" tryst may now take place earlier in the afternoon (thanks to extra traffic on the Périphérique), but nothing else much changes in the world of French extra-marital affairs. In this seamless comedy of manners, journalist Kate Muir exposes the illicit appetites of the haute bourgeoisie, and points out the pitfalls of the Anglo-French misalliance.

In a novel reminiscent of Diane Johnson's Parisian satire Le Divorce, Muir reprises the story of a failing marriage. Olivier and Madison Malin are widely regarded as the "Great Mind" and the "Great Body" of the Left Bank. Madison, a leggy Texan model turned art-house actress, is the epitome of Parisian womanhood. Olivier, an unexpectedly dishy "gastrophilosophe", writes books with titles such as Chechnya - Beyond Philosophy. The only blot on the landscape is their daughter, seven-year-old Sabine. It's the little girl's disappearance on a rare family day out that precipitates the closing act of the marriage.

Until this point, the Malins - more interested in passion than childcare - have tolerated each other's romantic adventures. Madison maintains a heated "amitié amoureuse" with a family friend; Olivier has a line of publicity girls waiting their turn. This mutual arrangement might have continued indefinitely but for the arrival at the rue du Bac of the English nanny, Anna Ayer.

With the French, British and Americans gathered under one roof, the scene is set for cultural fireworks. Muir, a former resident of Paris, shares her insider's knowledge of salon society to comic effect. Neither smart mothers nor migrant maids escape her wit.

Madison, for one, is no innocent abroad. Steeped in the syntax of Paris - the language of St-Sulpice hairdressers, the encoded eroticism of Christian Louboutin heels - she only comes unstuck when she fails to read the subtext of Anna's more visceral appeal. It takes the surveillance activities of the household's fantastically creepy concierge, Madame Canovas, to register the nanny's growing attachment to father and daughter.

Muir's novel may bottle the romantic chemistry of Paris, but finally it paints the French as a supremely rationalist race. Olivier, for all his D'Artagnan-sleeved shirts and chilled brouilly, is only interested in the "short narrative". Anna, being English, makes the error of taking her Belle de Jour moment to heart. Muir has described her work as "croissant pornography": this is adult entertainment on a plate.

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