Monday, August 22, 2011

The Lantern -- Book Review

A month or so ago, Harper-Collins sent me a new novel, “The Lantern,” by Deborah Lawrenson, to review. The book is set in Provence, and a minor character becomes a perfumer. Hence sending review copies to perfume bloggers such as myself. I do appreciate the outside-the-box thinking that went into this. 
About the book itself: My opinion is mixed. It’s a gothic novel, not anything I’d usually read. But I do love good travel writing. Much of this book reads like it.
The narrative switches back and forth between Eve, a modern young woman who has fallen in love with a mysterious older man and followed him to a farm in Provence, and Bénédicte, daughter of the original farm family, now present only in spirit. It is Bénédicte’s sister, afflicted with congenital progressive blindness, who becomes the successful perfumer. 
As their idyllic summer fades to autumn, Eve begins to realize that she and her lover, Dom, are not alone in their ancient farmhouse. Past residents begin to make their presence known. As Eve’s veil of infatuation lifts with time, she becomes aware that Dom has a past, and a secret.
It is Bénédicte’s memories that form the sensual heart of the novel. Here she describes a late-summer day on the farm: “It was one of those days so intensely alive and aromatic, you could hear as well as smell the fig tree in the courtyard. Wasps hummed in the leaves as the fruit ripened and split; globes of warm, dark purple were dropping, ripping open as they landed with sodden gasps.”
The book is full of passages like this. I don’t think anyone I’ve read has described Provence in such a tactile and olfactory way. The problem here is one of characterization.
“The Lantern” is something like a modern action movie, long on effects and short on character development. We never really know the protagonist, Eve, or her lover, Dom. He is like a cardboard cut-out; just there, walking through the plot, playing his part. I never could work up much sympathy for Eve, either, who seems alternately petulant and nosy. It is Bénédicte, the ghost narrator, whose presence is most keenly felt and whose memories resonate. 
“The Lantern” is being marketed as similar to the Daphne du Maurier classic gothic story Rebecca. Somehow, I never read that. I’d like to now. There are similarities of course, gothic archetypes like the isolated protaganist, but the plot’s climax falls with a resounding thud -- all I could think was “That’s it? That’s the big dark secret?” Perhaps these all-too-modern characters simply don’t fit the gothic milieu well; perhaps that’s why Bénédicte’s wise presence saves the story, to some extent.
What is heartening about this book is the emphasis on the olfactory sense, usually ignored in fiction, and the writer's obvious love of classic fragrance. The expression “you could almost smell it” applies perfectly here, in Bénédicte’s beautiful descriptions of Provincial farm life.
“The Lantern,” from Harper-Collins, came out August 9th. It’s available in the usual places. ISBN is 978-0-06-204969-8.
The image shown here is the cover of the advance reader’s edition. The “real” cover is slightly different.

1 comment:

Vanessa said...

I loved the "sodden gasps" simile and would be drawn to this book, if only for its lyricism and emphasis on the sense of smell, which as you say tends to be neglected in literature.

I seem to remember that Pagnol's books set in Provence (eg La Gloire de Mon Pere) were full of sensuous descriptions, though I haven't read them for 30 years. Maybe the South of France has a particular effect on writers.

I can recommend Rebecca, btw, and all the film versions!