Review: The Confidant

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The ConfidantThe Confidant by Hélène Grémillon
Published by Penguin on October 30, 2012
Genres: Historical, Mystery
Pages: 245
Format: Paperback
Source: Publisher

Paris, 1975. While sifting through condolence letters after her mother's death, Camille finds a long, handwritten missive that she assumes came by mistake. But every Tuesday brings another installment from a stranger named Louis, a man separated from his first love, Annie, in the years before World War II. In his tale, Annie falls victim to the merciless plot of a wealthy, barren couple just as German troops arrive in Paris. But also awaiting Camille's discovery is the other side of the story - one that calls into question Annie's innocence and reveals the devastating consequences of revenge. As Camille reads on, she realizes that her own life may be the next chapter in this tragic story.

First Sentence: “I got a letter one day, a long letter that wasn’t signed.”

When I get a review request in my email inbox for a historical fiction novel with an appealing cover, I just cannot say no. The Confidant, set in Paris, as you can tell from the cover with the ubiquitous Eiffel Tower background, also takes place partially during the WWII era. Basically, I was all kinds of sold. What I love about fiction set in that era is how much variety there is, how much ground to be covered, and, yet again, I found myself in a book very different from any I’d previously encountered. The Confidant is a strange, oddly powerful little book.

The novel opens on Camille, who, in her mid-thirties, has just become pregnant by her boyfriend and whose mother has just died. These facts matter only in how they affect her mental state at the time of receiving the letters. After bereavement, people send letters, sharing stories, offering condolences, etc. Camille receives a thicker, unsigned letter, and opens it, curious to discover what it contains. Inside, she finds a story, one that seems to have little to do with her. The letters keep coming, always unsigned and always conveying a bit more of the story. This narrative device ensnared my curiosity, much as it did Camille’s. What happened to the people in these letters? Were they delivered to Camille by mistake?

While the bulk of the novel does take place during WWII, I will say that the war serves solely as a backdrop or a sort of catalyst to the drama of the piece. In fact, this story could have happened in another time or another place. It’s a story of a woman and a girl, one desperate to fulfill what she sees as her duty and the other trying to find herself.

The main theme of The Confidant centers around childbirth. Obviously, this isn’t a topic of much interest to me ordinarily, but the treatment here really made me think. Madame M desperately wants children, but, despite years of trying, she and her husband have yet to conceive. Constantly bombarded by war propaganda urging the importance of procreation to the continued health of France, Madame M feels guilty and like a failure. Her desperation drives her to try every single rumored cure for infertility, and goodness gracious but it was horrifying. The things women have been asked to do throughout history boggle my mind and sadden me deeply.

The tale told within these pages surprised me in its sordidness and darkness. Honestly, I expected something much lighter. However, The Confidant turned out to be a tale of sex and betrayal. While I didn’t connect with any of the characters on a personal level, I could not help being caught up in their drama and the desire to discover just how the past had become Camille’s present and where everyone ended up.

Sadly, though, I think this novel could have been formatted much better, as it was rather confusing. There are no chapter headings or indications that you’re switching from one narrative to another, besides, sometimes, a change in font. Camille’s narrative is an awful sans serif font. Then, without warning, the novel switches to Louis’ letter. This, at least, had the benefit of being in a different font, but there was no transition at all, so it was jarring. More troublesome was the switch to Annie’s perspective, which had no distinguishable difference from Louis’. I read several pages before I finally figured out what was going on. Once I knew what to expect, I didn’t have any problems, but this really could have been handled better.

Grémillon has a poetic sort of writing style, which, while not entirely unpleasant to me, simply was not a style that has particular appeal to me. The phrasing was occasionally quite strange, and reads perhaps more like free verse than prose perhaps, though it could also be a result of an awkward translation from French. Grémillon even ends the novel with a poem, which definitely went rather over my head. I’ve been trying to do better, but I still have difficulty appreciating poetry.

For those of a poetic persuasion with an interest in women’s issues and history, Grémillon’s debut is a must-read. Though it did not end up being precisely my kind of book, I can recommend it highly as a quality read for a slightly different style of reader.

Favorite Quote:

“Nicolas said that no beauty mark had ever been more deserving of its name, and he was very fond of it. He would have done better to be fond of me.”

8 responses to “Review: The Confidant”

  1. Steena says:

    Just ONCE, I’d like to have a book set in South Dakota and use the Mitchell Corn Palace on the cover to let you know where it is set. Move over, Eiffel Tower, here comes the Corn Palace!

  2. Aw it’s too bad that the formatting wasn’t better done. I hate feeling displaced and not even realising that the pov has switched. I’m not big on historical fiction but I know you are, so I’m happy you enjoyed this one so much!

  3. I just read something with switching pov and lack of formatting, I still loved story but it took away from experience.
    Thanks for review though,
    Brandi from Blkosiner’s Book Blog

  4. Kat Balcombe says:

    Ack! Amazing how formatting can make such a difference – there’s nothing worse than feeling lost when there’s a switch.

    I’d have skimmed the poetry, too much like hard work 😉

    But a big yay for pretty historical fiction!

    • Christina says:

      Oh yeah, sometimes you’re lost even with formatting, but why would you ever want to make that harder on the reader?

      There’s not a lot of poetry. Just the last two pages or something. :-p

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