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.

17 thoughts on “Book Review: The Martins by David Foenkinos and translated by Sam Taylor

  1. Excellent review Mallika. Yours is the second positive review I have read on this book today. I totally agree with your comment on prolonging the life of our elderly while isolating them. The future looks scary!❤📚

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    1. Thanks so much Sandy. I know, it is rather. We seem keep going on contradictory paths on every parameter (like don’t compare yourself to others vs always come out on top) and its worrying to think where it will lead us.

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  2. Funnily enough, I saw this on the ‘new fiction’ table in a London bookshop yesterday but time was against me so I didn’t have an opportunity to browse. And lo, here’s your review of it today! It sounds very clever and metafictional – an intriguing read.

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  3. I share that suspicion, almost a belief, that ‘ordinary’ people are less ordinary and potentially more interesting than they are given credit for. I learnt this early on in teaching when kids I’d prejudged as uncreative or unimaginative proved with closer acquaintance to be full of surprises.

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    1. I agree, lots of people (perhaps everyone given time and circumstances) has the potential to surprise in more ways then one. Though I only taught for a short while, i did find glimpses among the students too, even in terms of how they approached their work, ideasand things. Like I think they used to say in my undergrad classes, an ordinary reasonable man can only be found in a statute book.

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  4. Oh, I like the sound of this one, Mallika. I wonder how many stories are out there about “normal” people that would be extraordinary if someone examined their lives.

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  5. Nice review! I enjoyed it a lot as well: https://wordsandpeace.com/2022/07/21/book-review-the-martins/
    I highly recommend his other book The Mystery of Henri Pick.
    There are lots of excellent contemporary French authors, I would mention Serge Joncour (Wild Dog especially).
    If you want something different and excellent (Prix Goncour): The Anomaly by Le Tellier.
    In nonfiction, anything by Sylvain Tesson.
    In darker fiction/ social analysis: Marion Brunet.
    If you like a specific genre, I can make you other recommendations .

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    1. I remember eyeing Henri Pick when it came out but didn’t end up picking it up since I had too much on my plate at the time, but now in certainly going to be reading. Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll certainly look them up. The only other french volume I have on my TBR at the moment is Annie Ernaux, so I’m glad to have some many new to me authors to explore

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  6. This wouldn’t have appealed to me initially – I’m not enthusiastic about writers writing books about writers writing books! But it does sounds as if he’s found an interesting approach and has avoided taking the process of writing too seriously.

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