A beautifully controlled and powerful story of love and conscience, will and desire which begins when a mysterious young girl arrives to take up the post at the seedy Hotel du Lion D'Or in a small French town in the mid-1930s.
Reading Faulks's second novel (written before Fool's Alphabet, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray), one sees that his preoccupations and choice of genre have been clear from the beginning. Published in the U. K. in 1989, this is another postmodern historical romance, telling the story of a short-lived but intense love affair set in a France decimated by WWI. When Anne Louvet arrives in the village of Janvilliers on a rainy night in the 1930s, she hopes to leave behind a secret history of family disgrace. Her parents are long gone, their deaths shrouded in mystery, and the guardian with whom she lived in Paris has disappeared. In an attempt to make a new life for herself, she works as a waitress at the local hotel, soon finding escape from the watchful eye of manageress Madame Bouin in the arms of Charles Hartmann, a wealthy married veteran, lawyer and landowner. The ill-starred lovers' affair mirrors the general turmoil of the nation. Hartmann is emotionally scarred by his brief service in the Great War. His efforts to rebuild his manor house are stymied by discontented workmen and greedy entrepreneurs, and a politician he tries to help falls victim to scandal. Finally, his betrayal of Anne coincides with Germany's invasion of the Rhineland. Anne herself, with her physical beauty, mournful past and determination to survive, becomes the true symbol of France's spirit. Faulks blends the dramatic yearnings of physical love with a searing realism: the smells that waft from Chef Bruno's kitchen at the Lion d'Or are as immediate as soldiers' stark memories of battle scenes. In both Paris and the countryside, the living standards of the elite contrast sharply with those of the lower classes. Despite moments of overwrought passion and exaggerated guilt, Faulks's smoky cinematic treatment is perfectly suited to his moving tale of a woman and a country unprepared for the cruel consequences of military conflict.