The Optimist's Daughter meets The Wings of the Dove, set against the glaring light of the Med, The Bay of Angels made me feel horribly sad. (view spoiler)[One of the main characters spends half the book dying, too young, I might add. (hide spoiler)] This was not the book that I wanted to read about Nice. I wanted a romance and some adventure and a name-dropped cafe or bar I could go to and have a drink at like Zoe Cunningham did in The Bay of Angels, but neither Zoe nor her author were helping me out there. The Wings of the Dove, though also very sad (view spoiler)[One of the main characters spends half the book dying, too young, I might add. (hide spoiler)] and not what I wanted to read right before going to Venice, at the very least gave me Florian's on the Piazza San Marco.
I got to sit at the bar there and have a drink, just like Merton Denshler (and Henry James, and any other male writerly type who passed through Venice in the past 300 years).
This was one of the more expensive 'been there, had a drink like Person X' experiences I've had in my life, but I must recommend it: the waiters are all impeccably dressed and polite, the atmosphere is warm and inviting and cozy, the people watching is top notch, and they have the BEST bar snacks - and you get them all to yourself!
So, The Bay of Angels disappointed in regard to fresh ideas for activities in the South of France, and the only landmark of note is St. Rita's in the Vieux Ville.
A lot of funerals happen there. (It didn't help my mood today when, just after finishing a section of this novel where a funeral is held at St. Rita of Cascia in Nice, Handsome Boyfriend and I drove past the Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia in Philadelphia and a funeral procession was exiting the church. It was a very Stranger than Fiction moment.) Which is all to say, if you are planning a trip to the Riviera and want to read a few good novels set there to gear you up for the trip, maybe leave this one at the bottom of the pile.
However, I can't believe that I've never read Brookner before; the writing here is top notch, not a clink or clank or cliche to be found. She is the real deal and I have every intention of devouring the rest of her oeuvre. (Bay of Angels was her 22nd(!!?!) novel!) Bay of Angels is also a great, albeit small, novel. A young woman, Zoe Cunningham reads fairy tales as a child, and believes in them. She and her mother, who are 'independent' (i.e., don't have to work), live in a modest flat in London until Zoe, seventeen and supplanting The Blue Fairy Book with the Greek Myths of gods intervening in human life, and her mother meet Simon Gould, wealthy widower, who marries Mrs. Cunningham and whisks her off to his home in the South of France, buying Zoe her own flat in London and setting each of them up with a private expense account. Zoe's 'theory' - that fairy tales and/or deus ex machinae will come true as long as you believe - is proven correct. Then everything goes to hell.
In the great literary tradition of the city-as-character, Nice plays the role of fairy godmother or protector goddess in Zoe's fairy-tale gone wrong. It is a moving, multi-layered story about love and fate and family that asks and seeks to answer how much control we have over our lives. The twenty-year-old Zoe reminded me so much of myself at that age, too.