I found The Rocheforts to be an enthralling family saga, one which kept me intensely engaged from its dramatic Prologue, set in 1898, to its Epilogue, thirty-two years later. Although this is Christian Laborie’s first novel to appear in English, I was not surprised to learn that he is an accomplished author of many other novels, a total of 16 books to date, two of which have won prizes for regional fiction related to the area he has made his home, the Cévennes, a mountainous region in the southeast corner of the Massif Central. It must have a special attraction for authors: Robert Louis Stevenson traveled there in 1878 and then published a famous memoir about his trip, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. Much of The Rocheforts takes place in Tornac (near Anduze, we are told) in the Gard department, within sight of the Cévennes mountains. This is the home of the Rouvières, a family of prosperous farmers who raise sheep and maintain vineyards on their fertile land holdings. The other main locus of the action is Nîmes, capital of Gard and a major city in the Languedoc-Rousillon region, noted for its Roman ruins and long history and, in this novel, for its wonderful sturdy cloth, the “serge de Nîmes” commonly called denim. Anselme Rochefort and his family has long maintained a thriving textile business in the region, first, in silk made from their own silkworms fed on mulberry trees they grew themselves, and then, thanks to the shrewd management of Anselme’s father, who moved the factories to Nîmes, in denim which they sold to Levi Strauss in America. The Rocheforts live in the city but often spend time at their country home, Clos du Tournel, which made them neighbors of the Rouvières.
It soon becomes clear that this book is really the saga of two families, whose lives become so entangled that their histories cannot be told separately. However, I believe it would be most helpful to readers for me to introduce the members of each family, who are the chief characters of the novel. It is to Laborie’s credit as a writer and an observer of people that he makes each family member distinctly memorable.
- Anselme–Shrewd and unswerving in his calculations, whether to advance his business interests or dominate his family, Anselme is a formidable patriarch. He inherits much wealth, adds to it by two advantageous marriages, and wishes to hold absolute sway over his children especially. Events flow from this determination of his to control, even when that control is thwarted–at great cost to those closest to him.
- Eleanor–Anselme’s first wife and mother of his eldest daughter, Catherine. Already suffering from depression when she wed, Eleanor’s life proved to be as short as it was unhappy.
- Elisabeth–Anselme’s second wife, who raised Catherine as her own and had two more daughters and two sons with him. She showed herself a capable mother and loyal wife, despite Anselme’s often cold and dismissive disposition; devoutly religious, she was sincerely involved in many charitable activities, befitting the role of a society wife. Aware of her high social station, she was slow to form close bonds with the Rouvières, but she was not as implacable as her husband, and grew to value and respect them.
- Catherine–The Rocheforts’ oldest daughter is the focus of family secrets. When we meet the family, they are already in mourning for her at her funeral.
- Elodie–Being deeply attached to her older sister, Elodie suffers from persistent grief over Catherine’s death and suspicion about its circumstances. Her health declines but readers should not count her out of the drama because of her frailty.
- Jean-Christophe–The “good son” who apparently follows his father’s wishes, Jean Christophe shares his father’s harsh political views, and agrees to devote his life to the family business. Unfortunately, he has too little of his father’s keen judgment and too much disregard for the consequences of his actions. The extent of his double-dealing and immorality will surprise even his father, and point the family toward disaster.
- Sebastien–The rebellious son, Sebastien is the one who feels as though he landed in the wrong family. He has no taste for wealth or luxury, develops early concern for the plight of workers, and wishes for nothing but the independence to conduct his own life without interference from his father. His childhood and youth are a constant tug-of-war with Anselme. An idealist in many ways, he nevertheless manifests a thoughtless streak that ends up hurting others.
- Faustine–The pampered youngest child, Faustine is perhaps the only Rochefort child who is warmly loved, and willingly indulged, by Anselme. She is beautiful, confident, intelligent, and the least troubled of her siblings. Yet this will not protect her from hurtling toward terrible heartache.
- Donatien–The Rouvière patriarch is a loving family man, father of three daughters and one adopted son. He wisely manages and tirelessly works his extensive farms, called La Fenouillère, and his honest dealings have made him respected in the region. He is on good terms with his neighbors including the powerful Rocheforts, a position which allows him to incur privileges, such as summer pasturing of his sheep on Rochefort land in Lozère. In turn, he harvests the grapes from the Rochefort vineyards and is able to keep (and sell) half their yield. But despite his obvious success, social disparity is enough to put him at a disadvantage when Anselme Rochefort wishes to contract a marriage between his oldest son Jean-Christophe and Donatien’s eldest daughter, Louise.
- Constance–Donatien married for love, and his wife Constance is a partner in their family and even in some of the farm labor, such as the grape harvest, where the whole family must pitch in. She is warmly understanding and solicitous of her children, but finds herself somewhat intimidated at first by the closer connections established with the wealthier Rouvières.
- Louise–The Rouvières’ eldest daughter accepts an arranged marriage with Jean-Christophe Rochefort very early in the book. She brings to the marriage an impressive dowry, the groves of mulberry trees which Anselme covets to feed his silkworms. Louise and Jean-Christophe have a large family of their own, and she becomes an influential figure in the story for both her siblings and her in-laws.
- Julie–The second Rouvière daughter has a bad case of middle-child syndrome, since she feels ignored and uncomfortable with the expectations placed on her. She will also become entangled with one of the Rochefort men.
- Aline–Youngest daughter Aline is bright and wishes to be a teacher. Her ready admiration for her adopted brother Vincent becomes unrequited love as they grow older.
- Vincent–Vincent Janvier spends his early childhood years at the Sisters of Charity orphanage in Nîmes, until he is adopted by Donatien and Constance Rouvière. He quickly loves all the duties of farm life and forms strong bonds with his new family. The Rocheforts are slower to acknowledge his status as Donatien’s fully fledged son and sometimes fail to recognize his importance, with the significant exception of young Faustine. She and Vincent fall in love “at first sight” as children, and their forbidden romance is pivotal throughout the novel.
These families will experience the repercussions of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the post-war period up through the financial crash of 1929. We see the changing fortunes of the Rocheforts’ textile company, the effects of shifting markets and supplier competition in the denim industry, and the crisis of an aging industrial magnate trying to pass on his business and ensure his family legacy. The threats of family disunity and financial disintegration are never far away, and in this respect, the novel belongs to a class of novels exemplified by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901), the story of a north German family’s decline over four generations. Younger generations who succeed a great founder of a business empire tend to have different talents and different aspirations, and they are adversely affected morally by the very wealth their illustrious forebear has created for them. Critic Ian Sansom called this the “Buddenbrooks effect” in his last piece for The Guardian in 2011. It is equally the “Rochefort effect” in Christian Laborie’s compelling portrait of two French families at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Author Christian Laborie
April 6-15, 2015
(fiction / saga)
Release date: May 5, 2015 at Open Road Integrated Media
Two very different families are bonded by scandal in this sweeping story of love, greed, and betrayal.
Anselme Rochefort has built an empire manufacturing serge de Nîmes, or denim. His biggest client? Levi Strauss. As the craze for blue jeans begins to sweep the globe, Rochefort Industries seems poised for untold success. But Anselme can be as cruel and ruthless with his family as he is in business.
The Rocheforts’ neighbor Donatien Rouvière has one of the region’s most prosperous farms and is desperate for a son to carry on his legacy. After the births of three daughters, the Rouvières adopt an orphan from the Sisters of Charity convent and raise him as their own.
When Anselme suggests uniting the two families by arranging for their children to marry, it seems like the perfect match. But as the lives of the two clans grow increasingly intertwined, dark secrets come to light, including the mysterious circumstances of the death of Anselme’s eldest daughter.
With The Rocheforts, Christian Laborie weaves a captivating tale of deceit, intrigue, and the dynamic tension between industrialization and a way of life rooted in the land. [provided by the publisher]
Christian Laborie was born in the North of France, but has lived in the southern region of Cévennes for more than twenty years.
The Rocheforts is his first novel to be published in English.
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*Note*: I received an electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.
- Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes (a recent review by Jane Greensmith of R. L. Stevenson’s travelogue)
- “Great Dynasties of the World: The Buddenbrooks Effect” by Ian Sansom (The Guardian, 30 Sept 2011)
- “The Earthier Side of the Buddenbrooks” by Theodore Ziolkowski (The New York Times, 18 April 1993)