Monday, December 10, 2007

Chemins de fer

I’m not quite sure yet what I think of Benoit Duteurtre’s Chemins de fer. The storyline of the novel is straightforward. A fiftyish woman, Florence, splits her time between Paris (where she runs a public relations company) and a small charming village in the mountainous part of the Vosges, most often spending weekdays in the city and weekends in the country. She is, that is, a rurbaine. (I’m not sure if there’s an English word that has the same meaning.) She loves her modern, exciting life in the city, but she also treasures her time chopping wood, listening to the radio, sitting in the pub, and living alone in the family home she visited as a child. Little by little, however, the modern begins to encroach in her “traditional” village, first with electric street lights and then with recycling bins. At the same time, the SNCF first lets the secondary rail line Florence rides between her homes deteriorate and then cuts back on the services as part of their “modern improvements.” As these changes happen, Florence’s journal entries (the format for most of the novel) express not only her upset at the intrusive changes and then zeal for keeping things the way they were while also capturing how the locals look forward to what they see as the beginning of progress and perhaps even increased tourist business.

Duteurtre’s writing can at times be very beautiful, especially when he is describing some of the rural scenes. He also does a good job capturing some of the tension of Florence’s choice to live between these two worlds, one in which she happily accepts and benefits from (and ultimately even advocates for) technological progress and one in which she detests the way in which she sees them ruining the authenticity of her country home.

Because of that, Duteurtre had me with him almost until the end of the book. Almost. When he switched back to the third person narrator (a device he’d used at the very beginning of the book) to give us the last dreamlike scene, he lost me. I’m sure he meant for the ending to play out on several levels but it just didn’t work for me. I put down the book very disappointed in its conclusion. What I haven’t yet decided is whether or not those last eight pages are such a disappointment that I wouldn’t recommend the book to others or whether the well-done descriptive scenes (and the generally enjoyable storyline that raises an issue we must all struggle with on one level or another) outweigh it.

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