In the Shade of the Almond Trees by Dominique Marny is historical fiction at the intersection of many of the features I especially appreciate: It is a family saga. Set in the immediate time after the First World War, it shows the effects on family life at the home front. The Barthélemy family has lost their patriarch, who died at Verdun. His widow and children must deal with their grief and the challenge of running their business in the postwar economic climate. It is set in the French countryside, outside the village of Cotignac, in the center of Provence, where the Barthélemy almond trees and olive groves have provided the family’s livelihood.The pace of Marny’s prose is measured and restful, like the undulating rows of olive trees in their estate of Restanques.
“They went around a pigeon coop, then down the steps that led to the yard’s first terrace. Restanques spread down a hill over several acres planted with almond, olive, and fig trees, all on terraces held together by stone walls.” (p. 11)
This view, which Jeanne Barthélemy shows visiting botanist (and soon-to-be love interest) Jérôme Guillaumin, may be restful but the problems she faces are urgent and unsettling: how to maintain the smooth operation and solvency of the almond nougat and olive oil businesses without the support of her mother or the immediate help of her brother, Laurent who is bitten by wanderlust. As a further complication, an opportunist land speculator called René Verdier has bought the neighboring estate of Bel Horizon, with an eye to romancing the naive Barthélemy widow and gaining control of Restanques too. Jeanne tackles the demands of running her businesses with determination and creativity, but very humanly, she faces genuine discouragement at times and her own romantic blind alleys. But, as Jérôme advises her,
“You’re pursuing a dream–yours, which gives your life meaning. … What you’re accomplishing here, right now, will be yours forever.” (p. 174)
What I liked most about this novel was that it presented two strong female characters, who were NOT romantic rivals, but rather childhood friends, whose lives converged again at this critical moment. Rosalie is the niece of Apolline who had worked for the Barthélemy family for many years. When Rosalie joins her aunt and begins to work for them as a maid, the two young women find themselves side by side, their friendship renewed but complicated by the differences in their situations. Jeanne is now Rosalie’s employer. Marny does an excellent job of showing us Rosalie’s aspirations and conflicts as often and as deeply as Jeanne’s. In fact, their romantic lives are running in parallel to some degree, both having three significant men in their lives. For Jeanne, they are Régis Cuvelier, a self-centered playboy who nevertheless keeps a strong hold on her; Antoine Laferrière, a businessman who persistently offers her financial help–and his heart; and Jérôme, who is elusive and independent. Soon after she arrives, beautiful Rosalie gives her heart to Laurent Barthélemy, but his restlessness and immaturity pose significant obstacles. Vulnerable and dissatisfied with her position, she becomes entangled with Verdier, at great cost. She is nearly oblivious to the loyal attention of François, who works managing the estates and is likewise ambitious to make something better of his life.
At the risk of repeating a stereotype, this novel felt ‘very French’ to me (in the best way!), focusing as it did on the sometimes disastrous love affairs of the principal characters. Perhaps that is just the hallmark of good historical romance, in any language! As I read, I instantly compared this novel to The Rocheforts, which I also reviewed for France Book Tours (see The Rocheforts tour quotations) this year. Like it, In the Shade of the Almond Trees gives a glimpse of the workings of the family’s agriculturally based business–information which I found especially helpful in rounding out the picture of French life at the historical time and place. The Rocheforts perhaps emphasized the business side more, as it presented the intertwined relations of two families over several generations. With the strength of this book’s compassionate portrayals of Jeanne and Rosalie, and Marny’s sure hand in crafting a well-paced story, In the Shade of the Almond Trees captured my interest throughout, and I can highly recommend this slice of Provençal life and love in the aftermath of the First World War.
I also look forward to reading Marny’s previous novel in translation I Looked for the One My Heart Loves.
September 29 – October 8
In the Shade of the Almond Trees
Release date: September 29, 2015
at Open Road Media
In the aftermath of World War I, a family estate hangs in the balance.
For generations, the Barthélemy family tended to the olive trees of Restanques, a sprawling property in Cotignac whose olive oil and almonds were as incredible as the countryside that produced them. But all that changed when war came to France. Robert Barthélemy never returned from the trenches, and without him, the farm is beginning to die. His widow has lost the will to live, and only the fierce efforts of their daughter, Jeanne, have kept the creditors at bay.
Jeanne is spending an afternoon at home with the family’s grim financial statements when a handsome stranger appears on the front steps. His name is Jérôme Guillaumin and he is a brilliant botanist about to embark on a journey around the globe. From the moment they meet, Jeanne is struck by feelings she never thought possible: feelings that could save her life or destroy everything she has ever known.
was raised in a family
that loved art, literature, adventure, and travel.
In addition to being a novelist,
she is a playwright and screenwriter,
and writes for various magazines.
Visit the author’s website (in French)
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*Note*: I received an advance 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.