No, not THAT Joséphine. Katherine Pancol’s bestselling trilogy has nothing to do with nineteenth-century empresses. It’s the story of single mother Joséphine Cortès and her journey from put-upon suburban divorcée to confident, independent woman of substance.
The first novel, Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles (The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles) opens as Joséphine’s husband Antoine, who has been struggling to cope with his redundancy, walks out on her to start a new life on a crocodile farm with his mistress. Joséphine has to break the news to her daughters. The elder, Hortense, is a cold, ambitious little madam; the younger, Zoe, is sweet-natured and adorable. It reminded me of the opening of Mildred Pierce, with Joséphine, like Mildred, left as the sole provider. Joséphine is hampered not only by her modest salary as a researcher specialising in the twelfth century, but by an inferiority complex installed by her ice queen mother Henriette and spoiled, glamorous sister Iris. She starts writing the historical novel which will make her a publishing star simply because Iris has announced a plan to fill her days by writing a novel but can’t think how to set about it. So she gets Joséphine to do it for her.
Crocodiles does more than take Joséphine from zero to hero, it sets up a gallery of characters, many of whom have secret lives or pasts. Katherine Pancol throws in plot twists and revelations like a Mad Men secretary mixing up a batch of eggnog before the office Christmas party. Yet amidst these not always realistic shenanigans, the most sympathetic of her cast are always good company, easy to identify with, even inspiring. The end result is as if Joanna Trollope, Marian Keyes and Olivia Goldsmith had sat down to write a novel together. Crocodiles is a funny and observant revenge novel with a heroine as loveable as a Disney princess. No wonder it’s sold nearly two million copies.
La valse lente des tortues (The slow waltz of turtles) finds Joséphine installed in a luxurious apartment in the well-to-do quarter of Passy, once a Parisian suburb, absorbed into the city as it expanded in the nineteenth century. Balzac meets Elizabeth George in this enjoyable sequel, which revolves around the unmasking of a serial killer who strikes repeatedly in Josephine’s neighbourhood. Meanwhile, Hortense goes to London to study fashion, Zoe falls in love, Iris’s marriage falls apart and Josephine struggles to conquer a forbidden attraction. While the crime story was fascinating and convincingly written, that was more than could be said for some of the subplots (Hortense’s encounter with Russian mobsters and Henriette’s attempt to kill her ex-husband’s new wife via voodoo come to mind).
There’s a tendency for bestselling series to get longer and more bloated with each book, and unfortunately Les écureuils de Central Park sont tristes le lundi (The squirrels of Central Park are sad on Mondays) is no exception. It’s the longest of the trilogy, clocking in at 960 pages in mass market paperback, and it has very little plot. Joséphine needs to get started on a new book, but lacks inspiration – until she finds a diary from the 1960s in the communal bins of her apartment block. The diary itself, written by a young man who falls under the spell of Cary Grant when he comes to Paris to film Charade, is beautifully imagined, and I really felt that it was wasted as a plot device for a weak novel – I would have loved to read an expanded version as a novel in its own right. (I found it odd that while the male diary-writer’s crush on an older man was sensitively and sympathetically portrayed, the other gay characters appearing in Squirrels seemed always to be presented as figures of fun). Apart from that, the main focus is on Hortense, now in the early stages of her career as a fashion designer. The similarities between Hortense and her grandmother Henriette really come out in this book, although they have no scenes together. Both of them are seen drinking a citron pressé – Hortense because lemon juice is good for her skin, Henriette because it’s cheaper than alcohol. Henriette, obsessed with saving money in the wake of her divorce, does a sweep of luxury hotels every morning while the rooms are being cleaned so that she can steal unfinished bottles of wine and mini pots of jam; Hortense, on a student budget, uses the self-service till at the supermarket and unblushingly rings up every item as potatoes. The difference between them is that while Henriette has always survived through dependence on men, Hortense doesn’t want to rely on anyone but herself – which is affecting her love life. While her icy facade shows signs of melting, Joséphine finally begins to assert herself. It’s satisfying to see and ultimately saves Squirrels from being a book too far. But only just.
I originally started these books for the Dames de lettres challenge set by Céline (Le blog bleu). However, it took me so long to read through all 2,377 pages of the trilogy that the challenge had wound up before I could post my review! I’m grateful to Céline for hosting the challenge as it led me to discover a new author.
I bought my own copies of the three Katherine Pancol titles reviewed in this post.