The Girl at the Lion d'Or
Book reviewAt the outset of Sebastian Faulks's The Girl at the Lion d'Or, lovely, abandoned Anne Louvet seems almost willing to retreat into the anonymous routines of her waitressing duties--until she meets Charles Hartmann. He, trapped in a loveless marriage and feeling increasingly adrift more than a decade after serving in the Great War, is as enchanted by Anne's vulnerability as she is by his tender, almost paternal attentions. Their affair, and the cruel paradox of seeking a clandestine sufficiency, allow Faulks to pit the demands of desire against the necessities of duty, a task he pursues with tireless charm.
When Anne first arrives at the Hotel du Lion d'Or in the French town of Janvilliers, it is with the dual hope of escaping an unhappy past and discovering some degree of happiness. Undeniably beautiful and just bold enough to prod her own fate, she sees in the wealthy and restless Hartmann a soul that might redeem her own. "How was it possible, she wondered, to be awed by someone and yet to feel protective towards him too?" For his part, Hartmann senses in her the woman who, finally, might satisfy his need to offer refuge.
The secret of Anne's past, which she fears will drive Hartmann from her, conspires along with his gnawing uncertainty about her ultimate contentment to place their romance at a crossroads. Faulks, with deft restraint, never allows matters to lapse into the maudlin. Assessing the apparent inappropriateness of his love for Anne, Hartmann reflects that "there was something wrong ... in a society that could think of such generous feelings as unacceptable." Faulks's own generosity illuminates each page. --Ben Guterson