Having read The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, I looked forward to reading The Little French Bistro which was published in June of 2017. I put my name on the reserve list at the library and The Little French Bistro became available last week, surprisingly quickly, so I hurriedly checked out the book and began reading.
Nina George has published twenty-six books, over a hundred short stories, and more than six-hundred columns—a prolific writer, to say the least. She uses three pen names, so for readers who enjoy George, look also for books by Nina Kramer, her married name, Jean Bagnol and Anne West. George was born in Bielefeld, Germany. After dropping out of high school in 1991, George worked at a variety of catering jobs. However, in 1993, she became a freelance journalist. Nina George currently is teaching writing at Literaturbüro Unna, Alsterdamm Kunstschule, Wilhelmsburger Honigfabrik.
I am often curious about what authors like to read. George gives her readers quite a list of authors in The Little Paris Bookshop, a semiautobiographical novel, written after her father’s death. She credits The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams as an important book for readers. Other writers who inspire her include Jon Kalman Stefansson, Dorothea Brande, Erica Jong, and Dominique Manotti. Brande wrote two bestselling books in the 1930s: Becoming a Writer and Wake Up and Live, both of which are still in print.
The Little French Bistro opens with Marianne Lance Messmann, a German visiting Paris, deciding to commit suicide. Her husband Lothar has tamped her down their entire married life. While Lothar carries on a lively conversation with “a cheerful widow from Burgdorf,” a member of their tour group, over dinner, Marrianne suddenly feels not “jealous, just weary.” She leaves the restaurant, Lothar none the wiser as he continues his conversation.
Marianne makes her way to Pont Neuf. She carries on a conversation in her head about Lothar, but she does not blame him entirely. She even thinks to herself: “You’ve only got yourself to blame, Annie.” On her wedding day, Marianne promises her father that she will be happy. Unfortunately, Lothar is a controlling military man who does not compromise. He expects everything to be as he wishes; he does not consider anyone else’s feelings or desires, especially not Marianne’s.
Marianne removes her worn coat with all the patches to the lining. She leaves her wedding ring, shoes, coat, and purse on a park bench. She pushes herself into the water, only to find that a man is pulling her out and giving her CPR to revive her. She is angry that her suicide attempt has failed. Someone calls an ambulance, and Marianne is carted off to a hospital.
When Lothar arrives at the hospital, he is not concerned about Marianne, but about what it has cost him to get to the hospital and about “what people will think!” He goes so far as to say, “Do you realize how other people look at you when your wife tries to kill herself? It can ruin everything. Everything. You didn’t consider that when you wanted to do what you want. As if you even know what you want.” He leaves the hospital in order to catch a bus rather than take a taxi. He tells Marianne he must return home as planned or it will cost him more money. The insurance will pay for her trip home. Readers can see why Marianne wants out, but, very like Ove in A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Marianne’s suicide attempt fails, leading her to rethink her life and her plans.
The hospital food is vile, so Marianne offers it to her roommate who gladly takes it. Marianne drags her IV pole into the hallway and passes Nicolette, the surly nurse. As Nicolette goes into another patient’s room, Marianne dashes into the nurses’ break room where she grabs a madeleine, but, more importantly, she also absently picks up a brightly colored tile of a seaside scene. She sees a door marked “Stairs,” so she opens it and sits on the stairwell. She realizes she is holding the tile.
Marianne reads the names of the boats painted on the tile: Marlin, Genever, Koakar, and Mariann, an omen? On the back of the tile, she reads the inscription: Port de Kerdruc, Fin. The place is so beautiful that Marianne decides she must go there because she has “never been to such a beautiful place.” Suddenly, Nicolette bursts through the door and drags Marianne back to her room, replacing the IV in her hand since Marianne has ripped it out.
Once Nicolette leaves the room, Marianne once again takes out the IV and finds her clothing. She leaves the hospital on her quest to get to Port de Kerdruc by whatever means possible.
Marianne’s adventures in getting to Kerdruc keep the readers guessing. She receives help from the most unlikely of places. She befriends an elderly nun who has fallen asleep on a bench at Auray where Marianne gets off the train. She sits with the nun, allowing her to sleep on Marianne’s shoulder. Two other sisters and a priest appear and help both Marianne and Sister Dominique up from the bench.
The nuns and priest invite Marianne to go with them to their convent: Sainte-Anne-d’Auray, another omen since the nuns pray to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. And Anna is the source of all female holiness. Sister Clara tells Marianne that they are grateful for Marianne’s care of Sister Dominique since she is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The sisters ask Marianne to stay with them, but Marianne is determined to move on in order to find Kerdruc.
Since she has little money, Marianne is not quite sure how she will get to Kerdruc, but she sees a group of tourists and joins the group in the back. She boards the bus and no one is any the wiser. Before getting on the bus, Marianne has her first taste of oysters when a young chef insists she taste them. He feeds her the oysters and she thinks, “You should have been my son.”
Marianne does arrive in Kerdruc where the scenery lives up to the picture she still holds. In addition, she meets a fascinating and diverse group people. She wanders into Ar Mor, a bistro attached to a hotel that is no longer in use, but the bistro is an important part of the seaside there.
Marianne is mistaken for a seasonal worker who is expected. She tries to explain in her limited French that she has not come for a job. She does not speak Breton, so Jean-Remy, the chef, who is the same chef who fed her the oysters earlier, works out a method of communicating with her. He convinces Madame Genevive Ecollier, the owner, to hire Marianne. Genevive also gives Marianne a room in the hotel, a room of her own.
Marianne comes into her own working and living at the bistro. She cleans the rooms and helps with the cooking. Genevive reopens the rooms for guests. Marianne’s quiet, good nature draws people to her even though she does not share her background or why she is there. She meets Paul and Simon, two old fishermen who frequent the bistro. She also meets Yann Game, the artist who created the tile she still has; another omen? Yann is friends with Emile and his artist wife Pascale who is suffering from dementia. Marianne meets Emile and Pascale, helping them clean up their home and yard. Emile suffers from Parkinson’s.
Emile gives Marianne the keys to his car so she can take them to the grocery store. Lothar never allowed Marianne to drive. He also threw away her beloved accordion; Emile gives Marianne his old accordion. Marianne takes the accordion back to her room on Emile’s Vespa scooter since Emile gives her free use of the scooter. Marianne takes the accordion out onto the beach in the wee hours of the morning when it is deserted and plays to the sea.
In order to keep the secrets of the book for readers, I will not outline the plot from here. Suffice it to say that Marianne blooms in an atmosphere where people respect her and come to love her for herself. Lothar no longer controls her, not caring about her feelings, anger, love, or well-being. Lothar still threatens Marianne, however. He goes on TV saying that his wife is missing and that she is mad and needs to be found and brought home. Once this widespread appeal goes out, what will happen?
The New York Times writes lovingly of The Little French Bistro, calling it “an extraordinary novel about self-discovery and new beginnings.” The Washington Post says, “It’s no spoiler to say this novel offers a happy ending – and a satisfying one, as well.” Perhaps the most gastronomic review comes from the New York Times Book Review: “…George stops time and again to savor Brittany’s delicacies—from a Belon oyster washed down with a glass of Muscadet to a buttery kouign-amann cake; scallops with cider apples to cotriade, a local fish stew—embracing the true flavors of a land that ‘shapes people…not the other way around.’”
Read more about Nina George at her site: www.nina-george.com.