In this debut novel, a woman undertakes a road trip around France in an attempt to shed light on her family’s mysterious, troubled past.
In 2001, Sophie Zabél Sullivan, a Frenchwoman living in California, gets word that her mother, Marcelle, is near death. Upon arriving back in France, Sophie only has a few moments with her mother, who encourages her to seek out the identity of her grandfather—the father that Marcelle never knew. However, this is far from the only mystery in the family: Sophie’s two brothers, Thierry and Gérard, were both born out of wedlock during the World War II era. Sophie, meanwhile, is haunted by a sexual assault that she suffered at the hands of an elderly relative, suffers from depression, and is troubled by a recurring nightmare she doesn’t understand. Aided by her American friend, Kate, and using some of her mother’s old journals and family correspondence, she traverses France, interviewing family members and old acquaintances, looking for the answers that she and her siblings need in order to heal. As this multigenerational family saga of war, violence, and betrayal plays itself out, the two friends offer each other emotional support, and the trip proves cathartic for all involved. Along the way, the friends indulge in the French foodie obsessions that first brought them together while also taking in the history and folklore of the regions they visit. Bumpus does a remarkable job of capturing the nuances of the French landscapes and culture and of evoking the wartime occupation of France (“Beaten-down women with exhaustion etched into their eyes carried infants swaddled in mud and blood-spattered blankets”). Although the narrative can be a bit sentimental at times—even inducing compassion fatigue on occasion—Bumpus still manages time and again to strike at the emotional hearts of her characters to reveal their weaknesses and niggling vulnerabilities, as when Kate meets the grown daughter she gave up for adoption and later worries that she might have been disappointed with Kate’s weight.
A robust, entrancing debut.