“The flooding was not going to subside. Linden had turned off the TV. He had felt slightly nauseous. The Seine’s upwelling had upset him, but his parents’ state worried him all the more. The bad timing of their visit to Paris stupefied him. How could their family weekend have turned into such an ordeal?”
After a prolonged separation, the Malegarde family is set to celebrate the fortieth wedding anniversary of Paul and his wife Lauren, as well as his seventieth birthday. It is a shock for the elderly couple used to secluded rural life in the Drôme valley to arrive in a capital saturated by monsoon-like rain. Linden and Tilia, based in San Francisco and London respectively, join their parents in Chatterton Hotel in the 14th arrondissement. The family has not been reunited in such a way since they were teenagers.
Everything is not as it seems
A much-in-demand, high-flying photo-journalist, Linden has found happiness at last with Sacha whom he lives in domestic bliss when not away on assignments. His teenage years were uncomfortable as he was derided and teased for being different, not only because he was part French, part American. Coming out is difficult and takes courage. It was when he spent time with his aunt Candice in Paris that felt free for the first time ever. At the Lycée he was popular and blended in – being bilingue was cool.
“So here she is, nearly forty, an emotional wreck, a failed artist, the miserable wife of a drunkard.” Tilia is fragile – still traumatised by a car crash in which all of her girlfriends were killed. Her second husband, an art expert, seems the perfect English gent, but his debonair charm masks his alcoholism. Making a surprise appearance at a family get-together is not such a good idea if you are full of booze and resentment. His “insults are daggers of venom.”
Paul and Lauren had met during the 1976 heatwave: it was love at first sight. The American beauty on her grand tour of Europe had run into the broad-shouldered, muscular young man who loves trees in the main square of Provençal market town, Grignan. She never left.
During the family’s reunion-and-birthday dinner at the restaurant La Villa de Roses, Paul slides down in his chair and collapses. The ambulance takes him to Georges Pompidou hospital.
While Paul lies in intensive care in hospital, long repressed things from the past come out into the open, and assorted tribulations are played out among the family members as the torrential rain continues to fall.
Fear that there will be a repeat of the 1910 Great Flood of Paris when the Seine’s level rose eight metres above the ordinary level is exacerbated by the Media. “Linden turns on the television, positioned on the wall opposite the bed. The Seine is on every channel, even the foreign ones. Another panel of specialists resume their dire forecasts. This could last up to a month, with a seven-day peak that has not yet been reached.”
This is not the Paris of the tourist brochures, or that of the romanticised Proust or Hemingway beau monde littéraire, but a very different rather sinister and desperate place full of agitated crowds, ambulance-chasers, paperazzi, soldiers and harried officials.
People are evacuated from their homes and there is extensive looting. The Ministry of Defence launches ‘Plan Neptune’ and tourists are asked to leave. Everyone’s eyes are on Le Zouave on Pont de l’Alma – the Parisians’ unofficial marker of the water level. The nineteenth-century statue represents soldiers of the French regiments of North Africa who fought during the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856. As the Malegardes battle out their own intense and wounding family drama, Paris sinks into watery putrefaction, and begins to look “like an obscure and sinister Venice, a drowned metropolis gradually sinking into oblivion, incapable of putting up a fight, yielding to the unhurried and lethal violence of its demented river.”
Home Sweet Home
Tatiana de Rosnay is clear-eyed and unsentimental about the complexities of family relationships. Her lucid, strong writing is both understanding and challenging; disturbing and a delight. Her flawed yet endearing characters are very real. Brother and sister are particularly well drawn: loving but imperfect, they do their best in difficult circumstances. She is good on marriage, friendship, love and frustrated desire; on the tricky but necessary journeys a life entails, and finding the courage to be true to yourself.
“We need trees to save the world. Trees are living encyclopaedias. They give us all the keys.” The author’s underlying concerns are serious. She is powerfully reflective on nature and rural communities; on how the arrival of supermarkets in the French countryside have turned once thriving picturesque market towns into derelict ghost towns.
David Bowie – one of the most offbeat and unorthodox rock stars with genuine insight into the human condition – is the improbable hero of rebellious yet conservative Paul: the emotionally absent father who is world-famous for his campaigns to save notable trees. What makes him tick? What is his secret?
The Rain Watcher is Tatiana de Rosnay’s thirteenth novel. Among Le Figaro‘s top 5 most read French authors (2011), she is discovery.
Tatiana de Rosnay will be in conversation with Alicia Drake tomorrow evening at the Institut Français, London. The full programme of the Beyond Words Literature Festival is HERE
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