The Foundling, By Agnès Desarthe (trs Adriana Hunter)

A page-turner with added profundities

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The Independent Culture

Those who are wary of French literature, for the way philosophy can take precedence over story and characterisation, may revise their opinions with Agnès Desarthe's fourth novel, winner of the Prix Renaudot des Lycéens.

It has enough plot to count as a page-turner, yet it still surprises with occasional profundities.

Jerome's teenage daughter, Marina, is distraught at her boyfriend's death so he summons Paula, his ex-wife and the girl's mother, to try to comfort her. Paula is keen to reignite her relationship with Jerome, but he has another suitor – a retired police inspector, Alexandre, who is probing a mystery.

Desarthe's portrayal of a young woman devastated by grief is potent. At the same time she is astute and amusing in her depiction of Paula, who freely boasts of her conquests yet is driven to jealous wrath by the mere mention of women who had a crush on Jerome years ago.

Those who love the French penchant for analysis may enjoy Desarthe's playful pontification over mundane events. When a bar manager stares at Jerome as he fidgets with two keys, Jerome comments: "I nearly lost them!", knowing that the barman will think Jerome means both keys, whereas he really means one key and his new lover. "There are good sides to misunderstandings ... Jerome basks in the sense of peace peculiar to paradoxical admissions, those that cost nothing because the element of truth in them remains hidden. He imagines a world in which everyone talks like that, protecting culprits and victims in a thick screen of pronouns." Elsewhere, there's gnomic insight when Jerome resents Paula for not having been there to support Marina, while recognising that teen-agers usually spurn parental aid.

Hunter's rendering of the prose is flawless. She even manages to retain the flavour of the nursery rhymes that one character jumbles and adapts: "Row row row your boat gently down the stream, tippety toppety slippety sloppety, you fall in then you scream."

The mysteries deflate disappointingly, but are used to illustrate Alexandre's tenet: don't search for answers before you know all the facts.

The broader application of this is the philosophy that quests for answers aren't always beneficial. Sometimes the answers remain elusive; at other times the revealed truth doesn't help or make one any happier. Another message within this strange but lightly intriguing book is that the possibility of love, and friendship, is always there: it's never too late.

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