Nancy McKibben's Reviews > Léon and Louise

Léon and Louise by Alex Capus
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really liked it
bookshelves: reviewed, world-war-2, romance, literary-fiction
Recommended to Nancy by: I found it at the library
Recommended for: readers who like literary love stories and fiction set in the 40s

Léon and Louise
By Alex Capus

A very French love story, albeit written by a Swiss. Léon and Louise of the title are young lovers separated in the aftermath of a terrible air bombardment at the end of World War I, then reunited years later, after Léon, who has been told that Louise is dead, has married and had children. So, one of the central questions of the book: how to live with that?

This is not a fast-paced book, and it opens slowly, so hang in there until the lovers meet, at about page twenty-five. The pace doesn’t quicken, but we have the romance to sustain us. In order not to spoil the plot, a list of the book’s attractions instead of a summary. First, the Frenchness. Here is the author’s explanation of women:

That there could be no question of animal lust on this occasion, Léon bore with fortitude. Having matured into a man with some experience of life, he knew after five years of marriage that a woman’s psyche is connected in some mysterious way with the peregrinations of the stars, the alternation of the tides and the cycles of the female body; possibly, too, with subterranean volcanic flows, the flight paths of migratory birds and the French state railway timetable - even, perhaps, with the output of the Baku oilfields, the heart-rate of the Amazonian humming-birds and the songs of sperm whales beneath the Antarctic pack ice.

So much better than saying that women are hard to understand!

Much of the book is set in Paris, and the author wraps us in the city’s rhythms and helps us understand what it is to be a Parisien. Although the two books are different in nearly every other way, Capus’s descriptions reminded me of Alan Furst’s writing about Paris, particularly The World at Night. This lyrical passage shows us Paris at the beginning of World War II:

It was Friday, fourteenth June, 1940. That first springtime of the war, which had so far passed almost unnoticed in Paris, was unprecedented in its beauty and joie de vivre. Throughout the month of April, when thousands of young men were once more dying in the East, women in short floral dresses had gone around beneath the dark azure skies with their hair cascading down their backs. The pavement cafes were crowded until late at night because the boulevards still glowed with the heat of the sunlight stored up during the day. It was as if some gigantic, warm-blooded creature were hidden beneath the flagstones, breathing gently and imperceptibly.

Radios broadcast Lucienne Delyle’s wistful Serenade sans Espoir, customers in the Galleries Lafayette and the Samairitaine competed for white linen suits and beach pajamas, the air was laden with the beguiling scent of expensive perfumes in miniscule bottles, and at dusk lovers’ shadows blended with those of the plane and chestnut trees blossoming in the parks. To be sure, the Parisienes’ thoughts occasionally turned to the drôle de guerre, the so-called phony war, between two kisses or two glasses of wine, but should they have drunk one glass, bestowed one kiss, or danced one dance fewer? Whom would it have benefitted?

That the book is in translation makes the language even more of an achievement.

The final virtue of the book is its examination of how to live honestly in the midst of corruption. The setting is occupied Paris, but the question is universal, and we grow to admire the determination of Léon to find a way both to resist the regime and to protect his family. Louise and Yvonne (Léon's wife) are also complex and well-drawn characters who manage to overcome the situations into which fate has thrust them.

Léon and Louise offers many quiet pleasures. Savor its delectations while you sip a glass of merlot or dip a madeleine into a cup of café au lait.

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Reading Progress

January 6, 2013 – Started Reading
January 7, 2013 – Finished Reading
January 8, 2013 – Shelved
January 8, 2013 – Shelved as: reviewed
January 8, 2013 – Shelved as: world-war-2
January 8, 2013 – Shelved as: romance
July 20, 2013 – Shelved as: literary-fiction

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