A best-selling Prix Goncourt winner and, like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Name of the Rose, one of those accessible contemporary European novels, more international than national in style and substance. Abandoned by his mother shortly after his birth in 1882 in Paris, young Gabriel Orsenna (the narrator and no relation to the author, though the epilogue hints at some association) is brought up by his father Louis and grandmother Marguerite. Both romantics and devotees of the French colonial empire, their idiosyncrasies alternately amuse and appall Gabriel, who, from childhood, is ``afflicted with a curious deafness to anything not concerning women'' and with a ``rubber vocation,'' which enables him to bounce along through his picaresque life like his beloved rubber ball. Terrified of tropical diseases, Louis turns down a position in the Colonial service, but young Gabriel briefly becomes a diplomat and is sent to London to teach the Brazilian embassy all about Auguste Comte. The visit is significant, for Gabriel not only learns more about his beloved rubber ball but also meets the two Knight sisters, Clara and Ann, who become the loves of his life. Gabriel, a roly-poly figure and possible inspiration for the Michelin man, goes on to work for a tire manufacturer. In the course of the book, Gabriel relates his unending adventures with the Knight sisters; his time in Paris under the Germans; his work--in rubber, naturally--for de Gaulle and the Free French; and his futile journey to Indochina in search of his father, believed to be selling bicycles to General Giap. Orsenna has not only created one of those memorable resilient characters who bounce along through life regardless, but has also written an astute and witty commentary on recent French history. A rich, if at times overstuffed, book with much to savor.