My thanks to Gallic Books/Consortium Book Sales and Distribution and Edelweiss for a review copy of this book.
The Martins is a French novel by author David Foenkinos and translated by Sam Taylor which takes us on an amusing journey with an author writing a book. In the book, our narrator an author, accustomed to writing his books entirely from imagination, finds himself lacking inspiration and decides that he will stop the first person he meets on the street, and write a novel about them. He leaves his home fully expecting to meet a woman from a travel agency he usually sees smoking outside her office, but instead runs into an old lady pulling a shopping trolley. Sticking to the rule he made, he approaches the lady, Madeline Tricot, who while initially reluctant invites him to her home. Before long though, he is ‘hijacked’ by Madeline’s daughter Valerie (for Madeline is in the initial stages of Alzheimer’s and Valerie doesn’t want her to be pressured) into writing about her and her family, ‘the Martins’ of the title, as well. Valerie is a school teacher, her husband Patrick works in insurance, and they have two typical adolescent children, Jérémie and Lola. Madeline has some stories to tell of her husband and her first love, but it seems Valerie and Patrick are just ordinary, run-of-the-mill people, while of their children Jérémie tries to appear interesting but Lola wants nothing to do with the project. Madeline used to work in fashion though, and has many anecdotes of Karl Lagerfeld which our narrator decides he will resort to when he runs out of material. But banal though the Martins may seem at first glance, soon it turns out that each is facing different troubles to do with love, work, and various other things. And before he knows it, our narrator is himself pulled into and forming part of the novel.
While I have read a reasonable bit of classic French fiction, and also more nonfiction than I had realised, this was the first contemporary novel that I have read and I ended up enjoying it very much indeed. Entertaining and engrossing, The Martins brings readers a very different premise and more so, structure from the usual, in that not only is our narrator writing about real people, but he is ‘talking’ to us all through and taking us through the whole process. So, we get to know the Martins and Madeline of course, but also the author himself, his approach to the project (including his notes on each of the characters at the end of every day), and how the process is affecting both sides. For our narrator soon finds that while real-life people, much like his fictional characters, have a life of their own beyond his control, when dealing with real life, he cannot simply remain an observer, but becomes part of the project himself
Rushing into the lives of others, I had ended up meeting myself. But was that something I wanted to do?
Our narrator’s presence and interactions with the Martins begin to impact their equations with each other as well, and he finds himself taking on various roles—friend, counsellor, intermediary—at times much needed by his subjects, at others viewed as an unwanted intruder who is ruining everything. As we read on, his subjects begin to open up, there are twists and turns, secrets are revealed and the Martins and indeed Madeline show that ordinary people are far from ‘ordinary’, in their thoughts and actions, taking our narrator and us on an unexpected adventure. This makes it a fun journey all through with readers not quite sure how things will end, and when it does, things wrap up rather well.
An added level of enjoyment comes from our narrator’s witty and perceptive observations on the many absurdities of human life generally, and more particularly of current-day life—from our treatment of the elderly (something I increasingly wonder about for on the one side, we try to prolong life, but on the other constantly belittle and isolate our elders) to our ways of raising children, exams, television with endless reality shows ‘normalising’ every experience, the instant gratification we have come to expect leading to frustration rather than any real happiness, or indeed our electronic tether, the phone
Everybody kept their phone number. It was the motto of our age: always be reachable.
Despite all of this, there are a few moments when his subjects have little to say or are busy with other pursuits and so, as promised, we get our anecdotes about Karl Lagerfeld including his experiences with weight loss and creativity.
Time passed and I was still alone in the living room. So I had no choice. It was time for INTERESTING ANECDOTES ABOUT KARL LAGERFELD
Another element which was a favourite with me were the footnotes peppered through the book, explaining his actions or a literary device he might be choosing, notes to himself or even just about himself. For instance,
My face was an open book. Open to the page where the murderer’s identity was revealed.
A very different and enjoyable read which I very much recommend, a story of how seemingly commonplace people can be rather surprising!
Copy reviewed: Kindle ARC, Gallic Books, 2022, 251pp.