Escape Artists

Anna Gavalda is far too modest when she states her intention on the back of the 2009 edition of L’Échappée belle, a joy-filled novel about three siblings who make a break for it at a wedding, running off to reconnect with their brother Vincent and their shared childhood: Ce petit livre n’a pas d’autre prétention que de vous inviter à partager ce pique-nique. Entre gens qui s’aiment, et qui aiment la vie.

Anna Gavalda

Among the many reasons to read this slight, sly novel is to experience Carine, a pharmacist qui a fait pharmacie mais préfère qu’on dise médecine, donc elle est pharmacienne mais préfère qu’on dise pharmacien, donc elle a une pharmacie mais préfère qu’on dise une officine. This sentence alone is une délectation, but there’s more, much more. Carine’s running commentary during the drive to the wedding about les microbes, her endless supply of towelettes, and halfhearted agreement to give a few échantillons to her sisters-in-law is written with great comic energy. Carine may be right to worry about the complicity between her husband and his siblings. Not only do they ditch the wedding party, they ditch her.

If the portrait of Carine feels vaguely familiar, you’ve read your Flaubert. Thanks to husband Bob for reminding me of officious Monsieur Homais in Madame Bovary. His self-importance and the heady mélange of beauty and medicinal products the pharmacist sells in Yonville rivals anything you might find in Paris or Nice today.

French pharmacy

What is it about French pharmacies and pharmacists that remains so compelling? That green sign can be a beacon of light in an overwhelming world. No wonder travelers in the know make a beeline for their preferred Mecca where the pharmacist on staff has had six to nine years of university training. Where would you rather go for medical advice, a doctor’s office or Citypharma in the 6ème, where you can also stock up on discounted beauty products?

Discounted products are a source of contention in a conversation instigated by Garance, our first-person narrator and the most outspoken sib. How to determine what’s real and what’s contrefaçon when considering the Exfoliant Double Générateur d’Azote à la vitamine B12 de chez Estée Lauder? The exchange will have you laughing out loud, but mirth isn’t all this author is up to.

These personnages love each other and their tender portraits lift Carine above mere caricature. Is this a gavaldesque trademark? Simon’s confession that his wife “me pousse en avant” at the conclusion of L’Échappée belle suggests that affection for her characters may be Gavalda’s stock in trade.

Speaking of conclusions, when is a novel actually finished? Check back soon for more on Gavalda’s postscript.

— Linda

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