Title: The Lantern
Author: Deborah Lawrenson
Release date: February 2012
Genre: Literary fiction
Format: ARC (paperback)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 4 out of 5
Eve, a young translator only a few years out of college, already feels trapped in the turns her life has taken. Everything changes when she meets Dom. She leaves her life in England behind as they set out on an extended, dream-like vacation that includes buying an estate in Provence.
When Eve first arrives in the south of France with Dom, it seems that they have discovered paradise. But as they settle into an effortless new rhythm together, they find ghosts from their pasts are dismissed less readily.
Eve’s true name remains a mystery; “Eve” is a nickname given her by Dom when they first meet. Her narrative is intertwined with the stories of a past resident of the Provencal mansion, Benedicte, whose identity is also obscured behind clouds of nostalgia and regret for much of the tale. The opacity of both women’s stories—the things they leave out, the explanations left unspoken—serve to heighten the central mysteries of the book.
Why have the ghosts of Benedicte’s past come back to haunt her as she lives out her old age in her family home? What happened to Rachel, Dom’s ex-wife, the specter that slowly drives a wedge into his relationship with Eve?
Like Dom’s haunting piano solos, Eve’s story slowly gains in force until it reaches a powerful crescendo. At the same time, Benedicte’s history expands like the delicate and complex scents in her sister Marthe’s famous perfumes. The two storylines come together in an unexpected and well-orchestrated climax.
The Lantern is poetic and gorgeously atmospheric, peppered with appealing descriptions of the lovely land Eve and Benedicte inhabit: “Down here, on the southern rim of the country, out of the mistral’s slipstream, the evening drops as viscous liquid: slow and heavy and silent.” Lawrenson’s prose is as luscious and vivid as the landscape it seeks to capture.
The gothic novel is based on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a tale to which Eve returns again and again. Eve, like Rebecca’s narrator, is a mostly unnamed character who finds herself caught between an intriguing man and his first wife in the south of France. “The story has an emotional pull and a truth all its own,” Eve comments, and Lawrenson seems to have felt a similar attraction; many of the details of Rebecca’s story mirror Rachel’s.
Likewise, Benedicte finds parallels to literature in her life. Andre, her onetime fiancé, is like a figure from both classic and modern Provencal stories, the messages of which were deceptively simple:
have faith that the gods of nature will prevail, faith in hard labor on the land, and celebrate the determination of the peasant and the artisan to redeem the harshness and transform it into beauty and a symbol of that that endurance.
Of course, Benedicte finds, such a simplistic reduction of a man can only be fictional. Such men exist only in stories; real life is much more complex, as Eve is discovering alongside Benedicte’s revelations.
Literary allusions abound in the novel, partly because of Eve’s bookishness. She’s an inveterate reader searching for the perfect French story to translate. Her awareness of the stories one constructs about oneself and others plays an important role in the narrative, giving it an acute self-consciousness at times. Eve observes:
We all tell stories about ourselves, some repeated so often that we can honestly believe them to be the truth. . . . And what narrative had I invented for my life with Dom? There were plenty, I now realized. Nothing important at first, but that’s the thing about stories—like lies, they start small.
Her illusions are shattered as she unravels the truth behind Dom’s carefully armored past.
Sight is another important element of the novel. “Sight offers such a powerful and immediate understanding that an image always seems more persuasive, a proof of what was once seen,” Eve says. “We believe the evidence of our eyes.” Benedicte is even more attuned to the illusion of appearance. “Change is not always visible, as the turn of the seasons is, or the natural process of aging,” she comments, concluding, “We are so many people in one lifetime.”
My quibbles with the book are relatively minor. I would have preferred that the ending had left more to the imagination, and I was also disappointed by an unexpected anti-abortion message in one of the character’s subplots.
However, I enjoyed this book a great deal. The tone is as sunbaked and sprawling as the Provencal hills, building a suspense that takes its time to unravel but is ultimately captivating. By building on du Maurier’s Rebecca, Lawrenson has constructed a story that is at once timeless and modern.
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