Monday, September 3, 2012

The Way I Found Her, by Rose Tremain

Book cover photo from Goodreads

The Way I Found Her (1997, Sinclair-Stevenson) is a brilliant novel of suspense by the talented Rose Tremain.

Lewis Little, the teenage protagonist, is the son of a conservative school teacher father whom he considers rather boring, and a beautiful and willful mother. After reading a certain French novel, he has begun to call his parents Hugh and Alice. During summer vacation, Alice takes Lewis to Paris for the summer.

The plan is that while Alice carries out a simultaneous translation of the latest novel by the famous Russian novelist Valentina Gavril, Lewis will enjoy a Paris holiday, improve his French and take care of Valentina's dog, Sergei. Of course, things go wrong. At first it's just a matter of Lewis getting yelled at by a gendarme for taking Sergei into a dog-free park.

The voice of Lewis, the intelligent young teenage narrator, rings clear and true, from his Action Hero doll to his predictable infatuation with the volatile Valentina. Aware of his frustration at his own immaturity, he is surprisingly able to express this to his mother, even as he tries to distance himself from her parental dominion. "For about two and a half minutes a day," he tells Alice, he is a child, while at other times he feels and behaves like a mature seventeen-year-old.

Clouds soon gather over Lewis's blissful interlude in the Huitieme Arrondisement. In spite of his round-windowed room in the attic and his friendship with the existentialist Parisian roofer Didier, in spite of his explorations of Paris with his mother and Sergei, his blissful summer begins to go downhill. First, Alice and Valentina stop getting along; soon his mother becomes preoccupied and shuts him out. Then Valentina's ex-lover, another Russian writer, turns up and they quarrel.

Troubles that at first seem minor turn increasingly sinister. Lewis must think things through and figure out what is happening. He makes notes in his Concorde notebook. Can plagiarism lead to violence? Is Lewis's theory right? Can "everything" really "hinge on the lack of a definite article?"

And why, the reader wonders, does Lewis keep dwelling on the story of Didier's father falling from the roof dome of  l'Hopital de la Salpetriere?

Tremain keeps her readers guessing till the last. Even though in retrospect the ending of this gripping tale seems inevitable, the author delivers a satisfying surprise.

Rose Tremain won the 2008 Orange Prize for The Road Home (2007, Chatto and Windus). Her latest novel, Restoration, published this year, was recently reviewed in the Guardian.

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