Overture – L’ Alouette 1 by Vanessa Couchman – an historical novel of turn of the twentieth century France
Set at the end of the nineteenth century, this well written book is part saga, part a different sort of romance, part a rise from obscurity. Featuring lots of plot lines and some characters who prove not to be as important as first appear, this is a substantial book and the first in a trilogy. There is a lot of impeccable research in this book, centring on a region of France and its agricultural system, life in Paris at the turn of the century, and singers’ approach to the contemporary operas. Furthermore, actual historical events and movements are incorporated into the narrative with great effect. I was sometimes a little surprised how events turned out, but at least it was not as predictable as some historical fiction can sometime prove to be in novels. Marie – Therese is an impressive and memorable character, whose thoughts, actions and reactions are central to the novel. With a huge sweep through the social history of the early twentieth century, this book has many distinctive and significant characters who combine to make an original and fascinating story. I was intrigued and pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
As the novel opens deep in rural France we first see the clever and talented Marie – Therese having her hopes of further education dashed as the only child of a farming family who need to keep her working, at least until she marries appropriately. We see her in the community which has to work hard to survive, but who join together to celebrate the harvest. When tragedy strikes Marie – Therese has to discover who her real friends are, and then suffers a traumatic incident which forces her to travel to Paris and work with family who are anything but sympathetic. As she settles in to work hard at her aunt’s bistro, she has scant opportunity to explore Paris, and suffers discouragement of her hopes to train as a singer. It is only a chance encounter that revives her hopes and makes her family rethink her ambitions. A transformation in so many ways almost restarts the book; this is a woman who can and does have different priorities, a different perspective on the world. The problems of life change to admit some desperate situations; there are some tense moments which are well handled.
This is an absorbing and interesting book which succeeds in drawing the reader and maintaining interest throughout the novel. The pace is maintained well, with room to explore themes and aspects of life in the early part of the twentieth century for a woman. There are many points at which research triumphs in small and big ways, from great themes of oncoming war to the food and drink products from different regions of France. This is a confident and subtle book, with much to admire in terms of character development and managing the plot. While there are points which do not develop in the way expected, this actually adds to the texture of a book which could be very single tone in other hands. I recommend it as a really good and satisfying read, with much to discover in terms of historical elements, and a well constructed fictional plot.
We have had a great weekend of Bicentenary celebrations at one of the churches. With concerts and drama, flowers and cakes (so many cakes) it has been a memorable time. It has been pretty exhausting – with more to come!