For Katherine Pancol, the author of the 2006 best selling French novel The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, everything is a story. Or has the potential to be one—whether it is a news report about a woman who committed a murder and got her sister to take the blame, or a chance meeting with a highly accomplished 18th-century history scholar who’s repeatedly put down by her teenage daughter or even Pancol's own experience of growing up with divorced parents. All of these make it into her book, "fattening up the characters," as she puts it, in her French-accented English, dropping her h’s and drawing out her e’s. "You don’t have to make up stories," she exclaims. “It’s already in everyday life. For every character, I read books, I interview people, I read the paper and I cut the articles I like.”
Perhaps that is why The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, the first of a trilogy, now translated into English, feels like a mosaic of stories. The main one, of course, focuses on middle-aged mother of two Joséphine Cortès, whose husband runs off with his mistress to start a crocodile farm in Kenya, leaving her to make ends meet on a 12th-century history scholar’s meager salary. But then we also meet Joséphine’s Chanel-wearing, scheming sister Iris whose life seems to have everything—beautiful looks, rich husband, exquisite jewels—everything, that is, except purpose and meaning. Then there are several other subplots involving middle-aged men and their secret love affairs, a bold neighbor with a mysterious past, a haughty teenage daughter who’s embarrassed by her mother, a handsome bookish love interest and even a cameo by Mick Jagger.
It’s this cast of characters that’s come under some criticism for being too one-dimensional and too soap opera-like; the women are either beautiful and cold or ugly and insecure while the men are mostly rich, libidinous and uncaring. But to the Moroccan-born French novelist, they’re as real as it gets. “I know a lot of Irises and I’m sure you do too,” she responds. “They’re lazy, vain, sensitive. When they are 20 to 25, they have everything, all the men are crazy about them, they have all the money. And when they are 45, they have nothing. Because they didn’t work on anything,” she explains. “They’re too beautiful to be hard workers,” she chuckles, as an afterthought.
The one character who’s believable, likeable and needs no defending, though, is Joséphine, as she goes from being a frumpy doormat who suffers insults from her own daughter and agrees to let her sister take credit for a book she has written, to a confident woman who stands up for herself and takes charge of her own happiness. It’s the one character who’s won over readers and perhaps single-handedly ensured the book’s resounding 2.5-million-copies success worldwide. “There’s something universal about this woman Joséphine,” Pancol muses. “She’s not a striking beauty, she’s nothing special except she goes through life and she’s nice. She’s even nice with her ex-husband who cheated on her, and then borrowed money without telling her.” If Pancol’s fan mail is anything to go by, then Joséphine has touched hearts across all the 29 languages the book has been translated into since it was released (English is the 30th). “I received a mail from a Chinese guy,” recounts Pancol. “He’s 20. He’s a soldier in the Chinese Army. And he said, ‘Madam, I am Joséphine.’ And I thought, ‘You are kidding, you cannot be Joséphine, you are 20, you’re a man and you are in the Chinese army.’ But he wrote, ‘Yes, madam, I am Joséphine, I am lost in this world, I want to find myself, I want to be a good person and your book has changed my life.’ ” Pancol is a little amazed at how much readers seem to get inspired by Joséphine and how her book has ended up with a feel-good vibe.
Of the 13 books she’s written, this English translation is the first time Pancol has read her work in a language other than French. And even though it has a few clumsy turns of dialogue and too-literal phrases (like one which describes Joséphine’s stepfather as an “old toad on a matchbox”), she is happy that it manages to capture the spirit of the book and the fast-paced rhythm of her writing. It’s this action-packed rhythm that’s come to define her writing style, something she developed in her late-20s in the decade she spent in New York City while pursuing creative writing and screenwriting classes at Columbia University. “I was reading practically only American literature and watching American movies with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, so I got involved in the rhythm,” she recalls. “I think the way American writers write is so up-to-date, so modern.”
But why the title? “ It’s very strange,” she admits with a full laugh, before confessing that it just came to her, without any thought, as she was writing about the yellow eyes of the crocodiles that Joséphine’s ex-husband raises on his farm in Kenya. At first her publisher wasn’t a fan. He told her, “ ‘Katherine, look, no one is going to understand it,’ ” she recounts. “ ‘They’re going to think it’s about animals in the jungle.’ ” But she stood her ground and eventually the publisher came around.
“In some way,” she adds thoughtfully, after a pause, “isn’t that the world we live in? You’re getting eaten by crocodiles all the time.”
Nidhi Chaudhry is a freelance writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.