REVIEW: THE FRENCH PROMISE BY FIONA MCINTOSH

THE FRENCH PROMISE

Author: Fiona McIntosh
Michael Joseph RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Book Cover: The French PromiseAt the end of 2012, two books were front-runners for my ‘best books of 2012’ post – one was The Lavender Keeper by Fiona McIntosh. I loved it … thinking of it now takes me right back to wartime France, when Luc, a French resistance fighter, and Lisette, a British spy, met and fell in love under the most challenging circumstances. It’s one of those books that lingers long after the final page. I knew Luc and Lisette’s story would be continued in The French Promise so it was with great excitement that I opened a parcel to behold that very book. I didn’t read it straight away – I wanted the moment to be right; when that moment came, I savoured The French Promise with delicious languor. It was everything I hoped it would be.

The story picks up a few years after World War II has ended. Luc and Lisette Ravens are now married and living in England with their small son, Harry. Lisette is trying to move on; she wants to put the past behind her and focus on their future, but Luc finds himself unable to recover from the horrors of those years. How can he forget? How can he wipe clean the horrific images that rise unbidden? His despair increases when he finds out the truth of what happened to his family; he rejects Lisette’s comfort and sinks into depression. As Luc’s dark moods continue to cast clouds over their relationship, Lisette realises the only way forward is to rebuild their lives somewhere untainted. Research shows her that parts of Tasmania, Australia, will be perfect for growing lavender and she encourages Luc to give it a chance; the young family sails to Australia, holding tight to the promise of a new life. Will lavender, with its sweet perfume and healing properties, heal their hearts?

Back in Europe, Swiss law student Max Vogel receives some confronting news from his dying mother. The secret she shares connects him to the Ravens; a burning desire for more information reveals even darker secrets and soon Max finds himself holding the key to Luc’s troubled past. After tracking down the Ravens, Max writes to Lisette; she answers him, but asks him not to write again, for fear of stirring up Luc’s pain – they have embraced their new life and she is reluctant to see that marred. But Luc finds out and he travels to Provence to put unresolved matters to rights; as he sees it, he is bound by promises to his family (and also to Lisette) to make a certain man responsible for ripping Luc’s family to shreds. Can he lay to rest the ghosts of the past? And if so, how will this affect his future?

The French Promise moves seamlessly from England’s south coast to the rugged farmland of northern Tasmania, from the lively streets of postwar Paris and back to the French countryside, still a place of secrets. McIntosh evoked a sense of each place beautifully, setting up contrasts between the cleansing coastal climes of England, the warm well-aged romance of France and the quiet, unusual beauty of alpine Tasmania. McIntosh’s love for these places is clear, but while I loved the French setting and the return to familiar places for some of her characters, I was particularly pleased that McIntosh worked in an Australian setting this time. I loved that Tasmania became a place of quiet healing for Luc and Lisette -think of the heady scents of eucalyptus and tea tree mingling with lavender for a potent healing remedy. It’s a quieter, less action-packed story than the first and the more isolated farm setting complemented this well. And yet, there is a scene in the book that takes place in Australia that  brought me to hot tears. The disbelief and sadness I felt at that point was near-overwhelming for a moment, rushing over me like a wave. I wished it wasn’t so, I hoped it wasn’t … but it was. And my heart broke a little.

If you haven’t already read The Lavender Keeper, I urge you to do so before you read The French Promise – you can read this as a standalone, but having the background allows deeper understanding of the characters’ motivations, fears and hopes. In The French Promise, McIntosh cleverly includes enough back story to give the gist of earlier events without overshadowing new events, but I do think readers who try this as a standalone would be missing out a little. A number of new characters were introduced in this book and I came to care for them as much as I did the central characters of the first book – Luc and Lisette’s daughter Jenny is one. A more challenging child than Harry, she reminded me of one of my sons and I felt oddly protective of her. It’s testament to McIntosh’s powerful and astute writing that emotionally, I invested a lot in this book; as the characters struggled to deal with new situations and information, I was there with them, feeling or imagining their pain (and joy). In one sense, this story is really Luc’s, but I loved that the theme of self-discovery applied to all of the characters, as did healing and growth; I loved that their stories held as much promise as his. On that note, does anyone else who’s read this think the lavender is a motif for growth and healing?

I said earlier that I savoured The French Promise. Much as I wanted to rush it, to keep reading through the night, I made myself take my time. I wanted to allow time to feel what I was reading. That was no easy task considering how compulsive this book is. But more than that, I didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters I had come to love. I didn’t want their story to end. Of course, everything comes to an end and so did this book, but I was left wanting more. Not dissatisfied – quite the opposite – but wanting to be part of this story for longer. The narrative, with its themes of love, war, peace, promises, secrets, courage and new beginnings, almost consumes the reader with its power, depth and rich writing. With new character Jane, McIntosh also lightly explores themes of divorce, mental health and domestic violence, issues that would have been ignored in that era, but which were no less part of human experience than they are today.

This book confirms McIntosh as one of my must-read authors in the historical/contemporary adventure romance genre. I have also read and reviewed fantasy standalone The Scrivener’s Tale (fantasy is not really my thing, usually) and for those who love fantasy, check out her works – she writes adventure that packs a punch. In the case of The French Promise, the punch was emotional – the gut-wrenching/heart-breaking variety. A truly beautiful and absorbing book, I want to read it again. Sooner, rather than later.

Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. This copy was courtesy of Penguin Books.

Bookish treat: As I write this, I’m drinking a herbal tea that’s good for my health. But, I’d love a French pastry to go with it. It might not be good for my waist, but it’ll be good for my soul.