As you may or may not know (or care) I got back at the weekend from three weeks in France -- and this book was waiting for me. It could not have been a more perfect choice and I plunged in to it straight away. As I'm sure you can tell from the cover picture, it is set in rural France, though not in the north west where I have just been. Here we are in the Cevennes, a glorious, mountainous region in the centre of France, with its own national park, much frequented by tourists who want to retrace the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson who travelled round the area on a donkey and wrote a book about it called, predictably, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.
Anyway -- having many times seriously considered moving to France permanently, I was obviously going to be fascinated by a novel about a woman who, divorced and in her late 40s, decides to do just that. Her children have grown up and left home, her mother, in a home, with advanced Alzheimers, no longer recognises her, and her job as an upholsterer and embroiderer can be done anywhere. So it is that on an autumn day, Catherine Parkstone finds herself driving up a mountain amidst a tidal wave of sheep, heading for the remote cottage she has just bought. Brave woman! For this is an area apparently completely free from other relocated "Brits", so Catherine will need to make friends with her French neighbours (a very good thing too, by the way, and all too uncommon in my experience). Luckily her French seems to be more or less perfect, and she is soon dropping in to the local farms drinking strong coffee and home made liqueurs, and managing to persuade many of them to have new curtains and re-upholstered cushions. The most intriguing of these neighbours is Patrick Castagnol, a very attractive, charming, single, middle-aged Frenchman, who speaks perfect English and is soon inviting Catherine round for dinner and taking her on trips to local museums. Oh ho, I hear you say -- but no, it is Catherine's younger sister Bryony who ends up in Patrick's bed while on a brief visit. Bryony soon reappears in France having taken a sabbatical from her high-powered lawyer's job in London in order to see whether the relationship is viable.
I'm obviously not going to tell you what happens as you will have to read the book to discover, but I hope you will. What I found so enjoyable about the novel -- apart, obviously, from the twists and turns of the relationships -- was the way Rosy Thornton dealt with Catherine's experiences of her solitary life in the French mountains. The climate is changeable and often extremely harsh -- pouring rain throughout the autumn, unbearable heat in June, thunderstorms in July and August -- and Catherine has to adapt her living conditions and sleep patterns accordingly. She has to learn what plants, fruits and vegetables will survive in her garden, and how to take care of the bees a kind neighbour donates to her. She has to find ways of building friendships with people who, although she speaks their language, are part of a culture to which she is a complete stranger (how well I recognised all this!). She has to battle with frightful, incomprehensible, slow-moving French bureaucracy (ditto!!). And of course she must learn to deal with the solitude and the distance from her much-loved children back in England. Will she stick it out? Or will it just be a temporary experience to be notched up and treasured? Read it and find out.