A rich and quirky Chinese puzzle of sorts: a family saga turns into a mystery, then is finally revealed as a domestic drama about a young American living in France who finds her own life intersecting with the history of her ancestors in palpable and uncanny ways.
Chevalier’s first novel (never before published here) is set in Lisle-sur-Tarn, a little French town that’s a long way from California, both geographically and culturally. But when Ella Turner’s husband Rick accepted a job in Toulouse, Ella chose picturesque and sleepy Lisle for their new home. It was an eerie choice, for it turns out that Ella’s ancestors—the Tourniers—had lived in Lisle until the 16th century. Ella tries to settle into her new surroundings with good grace—studying French, introducing herself to the locals, socializing with Rick’s colleagues—but she’s soon at loose ends. To begin with, she starts to have a recurring dream—a wordless image of vivid blue—that leaves her increasingly troubled. She also develops a persistent case of eczema, which her doctor suggests may be brought on by stress. What sort of stress? And she finds herself unable to make friends in Lisle. Her only real confidant is Jean-Paul, the town librarian who helps her to research her family history. With his guidance, Ella pieces together the saga of the Tourniers, Protestant Huguenots who had to flee France during the religious wars of the late 16th century. Their story takes on a personal significance for Ella, who discovers a picture by one of her ancestors in the local museum, painted in exactly the same shade of blue that she sees in her dream. Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring , 2000, etc.) contrasts Ella’s investigations with chapters relating the adventures of ancestor Isabelle de Moulin Tournier, whose life parallels Ella’s in many ways. Soon Ella realizes she’s looking into her past out of something more than idle curiosity.
A modest work of some skill, told with a minimum of melodrama and some good local color.