With wry wit and understated compassion, French-British author Roberts (Impossible Saints, 1998, etc.) studies the ironies of loving—and of truly knowing the hearts and minds of those whom one loves.
Roberts’s flavorful new novel consists of two stories related sequentially, though otherwise more or less discrete. The first is orphaned Geneviève Délange’s narrative of her early years in a home run by stern, unloving nuns, the refuge she found in hearing and thereafter inventing stories (the most formative of them is a fable about a mermaid attempting to live outside her element), and her brief happiness in the employ of an indulgent mistress—until the latter’s coarse new husband compromises the servant girl, and Geneviève is sent packing. Thereafter, the novel is divided into several first-person narratives, juxtaposing Geneviève’s account of her new life in the home of amorous bachelor poet Gérard Colbert, with the stories told about him by Gérard’s domineering mother, his young niece Marie-Louise, her English governess Millicent, and Gérard’s out-of-town married mistress Isabelle. All these women are to one degree or another infatuated, if not deeply involved with, the taciturn (though, one presumes, smoldering) Master of the House—and Roberts’s tricky structure suggests a series of mirrors in which these females observe themselves falling under his spell. Comparisons to Jane Eyre are doubtless inevitable, though the Gothic momentum that animates Bronte’s romantic masterpiece is largely missing here, because Roberts seems determined to give each of her women sufficient space in which to reveal the secrets of her heart. This jars against the reader’s compelling interest in Geneviève, whose complex relationships with all the Colberts and rueful sense of her own lowly place (“Sooner or later the mermaid had to return to the sea, which was her only true home”) ought, one feels, to have received higher narrative and thematic priority.
Nevertheless, a vividly imagined story that keeps nagging away at the corners of your mind. The Looking Glass is well worth peering into.