Monday, December 27, 2010
In order to prevent scandal among her royal Polish family, young Amandine is given to a convent in Montpelier as a toddler, with a young woman named Solange contracted to care for and raise her. Though Solange and Amandine are not bound by the strict rules of the convent, their lives take the same shapes and behaviors as those of the nuns that come to love them. But among the residents of the convent is mater Paul, the bitter and cruel abbess who uses her position to punish both the girl and her ward. Amandine, though beloved by most all of the residents of the convent, never stops dreaming of reuniting with her real mother and grows to be a sad and serious child who feels each hurt tremendously. As Solange and Amandine grow together, they come to understand the importance of staying away from sister Paul. When disease breaks out among the residents of the convent, the two decide to flee, hoping to reunite with Solange's family in the French countryside. But France is at war with Germany and the country has been dreadfully changed: travel for the two is far from secured. Soon the two are running from the German soldiers and being spirited away to hiding places by the French resistance. When the unthinkable happens one night, Amandine is left to decide if she will stay with a group of resistance fighters or continue along her terrifying journey. Rich in atmosphere and drama, the story of Amandine is one of both the hope of new life and the tragedy of war.
I am discovering that I have a real liking for literature that takes place in convents. It's not that I would say that I go searching for it, but lately books about convent life have been coming into my path with more and more frequency. I think there's just something so fascinating about getting the chance to look into a world that is a microcosm of the greater world outside, and have come to relish the particular stringency and dedication of women and men of the cloth. I think it would be great if my readings led me to more literature about monasteries as well, but for the time being, I am happy with learning all there is to know about abbeys and the people that populate them.
When I initially started this book, I was a little afraid that it was going to be too melodramatic to get real enjoyment out of, but I needn't have feared because the author takes great pains to avoid becoming tirelessly dramatic. The plot, characters and setting were almost pitch perfect, and though the situations in the book bordered on the dramatic, the way that the characters behaved and contemplated their situations and surroundings was done in a very realistic and almost subdued way. Nowhere was the writing hysterical and florid, and because of that, I fell into the rhythm of the story very quickly. It was a story that was steeped in sadness, loss and needless cruelty, but it didn't go overboard in portraying these things. Instead the tragedy was wrought with a fine and delicate hand, really allowing me to feel for the characters, and letting me lose myself in their story.
It was interesting, as I was reading, to discover the layers and layers of character development that the author created. Mater Paul, for example, at first appears to be nothing more than a vengeful woman who has severe control issues, but as the story unfolded, I came to see her for what she was: a very damaged woman who couldn't come to terms with her brokenness. Solange, too, was a double-sided creature. So blindly devoted to the young child entrusted to her but callous and unforgiving of the mother who she ran away from. This complexity of character was seen almost everywhere in the book and it made for a very rich reading experience. Things were never just black and white; there were many shades of grey to consider as well.
Amandine herself was a character that I felt a great affinity for. She was not overly precocious (which drives me mad) and looked at the world with the perspective of one much older and wiser. I felt that she carried a great dignity within herself and even at the hands of Paul and her abuse, Amandine never let herself become maudlin, only more serious and resolute. She also never let her tormentors outwit her, which was wonderful. Amandine's relationship with Solange was another interesting aspect of the book. Solange was the only mother that Amandine ever knew, but at times, the roles between them were reversed, with Solange taking comfort and refuge in Amandine in much the same way a child would in her mother. Though Amandine had an atypical childhood, it never registered in her behavior and one almost takes away the impression that she would have been a serious and grave child no matter what her circumstances. Her hunger for her birth mother at times consumed her and made her unable to accept the affection and love that others tried to give her. At times, she was like a closed flower, eschewing the rain. In brief moments of clarity, I think that Amandine knew that she would never meet her mother but her constant desire for the opposite to be true colored her perceptions almost constantly.
The first half of this book dealt mostly with Amandine and Solange's time in the abbey, and for me, that was where the meat of the story was. The setting provided the intrigue, drama and pathos which gave the story its depth. When the girls decide to leave the convent and venture out to the countryside, things began to fall a little flat for me. I think this is because I am just really burnt out on literature about WWII and the occupation. I read these sections with a little less interest and compulsion and felt that the author was really treading ground that I had been over before. There are so many things that could have happened to the two of them out on the road, but instead they became part of the war experience, complete with tortures, executions and starvation. It just felt like such a dramatic shift from life at the convent, and one that I didn't much appreciate. I thought this section of the book moved a lot slower and was a lot less involving and captivating to me. Shifting to WWII took the focus off the characters and shifted it into the setting, turning the book into something new and unexpected for me. Whereas I had grown to love the close little world of the convent and its characters, I was now in the midst of a new set of circumstances and people who I felt were a lot less well defined. I felt a little bogged down in my reading of these sections and because of this, my whole impression of the book suffered.
I would have to say that this book was both a success and a failure with me. Had the action stayed in the convent, I am sure this would have been completely wonderful read for me, but the fact that the book morphed into a war story during its final section had me not only frustrated but a little confused as well. Though overall I thought the characterizations and drama were expertly done during the first half, I also felt that the second half managed to be a little over encumbered and overambitious with these same elements. I am not sure what conclusions I should make about this book because it was so good at times but also so bad at others. I think I will probably just end up recommending this to those who aren't yet burnt out on WWII literature and who also like literature about convents. I so wish that I could have loved this book unreservedly, but alas, it was not meant to be.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Posted by Zibilee at 8:00 AM