Tatiana de Rosnay offers ‘The Other Story’

Posted Sunday, Apr. 27, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

The Other Story

By Tatiana de Rosnay

St. Martin’s Press, $26.99

Audiobook: Macmillan Audio, $39.99; read by actor Simon Vance.

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French author Tatiana de Rosnay made her entrance to the American bestseller scene with her 2006 novel Sarah’s Key.

Popular among book clubs, the story was a heartbreaking and inspiring tale that followed two story lines — one about a little girl named Sarah whose Jewish Parisian family was rounded up by the Nazis during the occupation of France, and one about an American writer named Julia who moves into Sarah’s old apartment decades later and starts uncovering Sarah’s secrets while she struggles with relationship problems in her own modern-day world.

It was a page-turner of a novel and was soon made into an equally compelling movie.

This new work, The Other Story, is also about family secrets from the past and their effects on contemporary characters.

The protagonist is Nicholas Duhamel, a wildly successful 20-something French author whose first novel, The Envelope, has launched him into a life of celebrity and creature comforts. That novel was based loosely on his own life story: Nicholas had lost his passport and when he went to get a new one, he ran into a tangle of troubles caused by a new French law requiring those who had parents born in other countries to prove their citizenship — even if they themselves were born in France.

In his quest to prove his identity, Nicholas discovered that his father’s birthplace was not France, as he had always thought, but Russia. His father had disappeared, apparently the victim of a boating accident, when Nicholas was just 11 years old. In Nicholas’ unexpected search for his identity, he stumbled upon his father’s secrets.

He also learned that thousands of people were having similar difficulties with the new French law. Inspired, Nicholas wrote a novel about a woman named Margaux, who discovers her own father’s mysterious Italian roots as she, too, deals with the new law.

For Nicholas, The Envelope almost seemed to write itself: “No one could prevent the words from tumbling out of him, spewing out with passion, anger, fear, and delectation. There was never a moment when his inspiration lulled.”

And now Nicholas is supposed to be working on his eagerly anticipated second novel. He carries around a notebook, and he has told his agent, his publisher, his mother and his girlfriend, Malvina — really, everyone — that he is in the thick of writing, but he is not. He hasn’t even started.

When The Other Story begins, Nicholas and Malvina have just arrived at the Gallo Nero, a luxury hotel on a small island off the coast of Tuscany. Nicholas is looking forward to three days of no one knowing where he is. “Three days of laziness.”

And for the reader, there is much to enjoy in Nicholas’ vacation. The descriptions of the rich who have come to Gallo Nero to get away are detailed, creative and funny. For those who enjoy living vicariously, this is a wonderful little escape to an exclusive life of privilege with pink marble bathrooms, endless glasses of chilled champagne and the poolside “ballet of the chair, the parasol, the towel, the newspaper, and the fruit juice.”

But Nicholas can’t really enjoy his vacation. What he mostly thinks about is the web of lies he has created by not starting his next book. And in those three days, Nicholas’ life starts to unravel at an alarming rate, mostly due to a series of very poor decisions he makes.

He tries in vain to get the attention of a famous literary agent who also has come to the resort. He sequesters himself in a bathroom so he can sext with a German woman whom he has only met once. He obsessively worries as someone keeps putting up damaging photos of him on Facebook, revealing his location.

But while The Other Story has delightful literary qualities and some lovely, well-written scenes, there’s a disappointing lack of tension in the central plotline.

It may be that Nicholas’ character is simply not likable enough. It’s hard to sympathize with a rich and lazy young man who doesn’t seem to have any sense of responsibility, and whose lack of responsibility doesn’t seem to carry any consequences. Nicholas’ poor choices take up the bulk of the novel without any real insight into why we should care about him. The pace of the book slows to a crawl.

Ultimately, tension does develop. And with it, Nicholas’ true psyche is revealed and we see how his current problems are connected to more secrets from his family’s past. In the last 20 pages or so of the novel, de Rosnay takes the reader through a fast-paced, nail-biting scenario, bringing the novel to a surprising but understandable conclusion.

But that change simply comes too late. Nicholas’ self-absorption and lack of personal connections have dominated the novel. The conclusion, then, comes more as a very interesting plot twist than the truly satisfying emotional experience that one hopes for in a great novel.

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