The Little Breton Bistro by Nina George
For a novel which hinges on a failed suicide, Nina George’s The Little Breton Bistro is surprisingly upbeat – but its perky tone will be familiar to readers of her debut, The Little Paris Bookshop, which likewise follows a character enduring an extreme mid-life crisis. Like the bookseller Jean Perdu, “a small figure in a painting, while life was played out in the foreground”, Marianne Lanz has achieved such near-invisibility that she might as well be dead.
She has spent the better part of her life in virtual servitude to a controlling husband who prohibited her from working outside their home, where for years she nursed her ailing, ungrateful mother. Lothar was an artillery sergeant major whose traditionalism manifests in misogyny and narcissism.
Enough is enough, and into the Seine she goes. But “[d]eath’s mouth was warm. Then its beard scratched her, and its lips pressed repeatedly on hers.” George tugs humour from pathos with the ease of a baker twirling pizza dough, and though Marianne’s suicidal ideation doesn’t vanish with her rescue and revival, her journey to the site of a long-held fantasy, the village of Kerdruc on the coast of Brittany, is certain to be resolved in bliss, not self-inflicted death.
As a traveller Marianne is the recipient of all kinds of dispelled wisdom, from the words of a nun to the care administered by a septuagenarian sailor, onto whose boat Marianne stumbles and who she begs for help after she topples overboard (betraying the instinct for self-preservation already shriekingly obvious to the reader).
The Breton locals tend to parochialism and are idiosyncractic to a comical extreme. As one resident, Emile, sees it, “Crazy people had it easy in Brittany: it was ordinary people who found it tough.” Emile’s wife Pascale is in the former category, her cognitive capacity being eroded by dementia, but her life is an ode to creative thinking, and she and Marianne form a quick friendship.
There is Jean-Rémy, the chef who teaches Marianne to drink Muscadet and eat lobster on a sun-bathed doorstep, and Geneviève Ecollier, the owner of the hotel in whose restaurant Jean-Rémy works and Marianne lands a job – on the condition that she, a German, learn French and Breton.
If I were to pinpoint one theme that seems to preoccupy the author, it would be unrequited love. Marianne has never experienced romantic love, let alone its satisfying carnal expression – rest assured that will be put right – and all around her are victims of ancient treachery and people swallowing unvoiced proclamations of ardour.
It would be unbearable if it didn’t all come right in the end, and if the novel weren’t lit up by flashes of literary food porn, the descriptions of Breton cuisine mouth-wateringly specific. Butter cake would surely please the dairy-friendly Kiwi palate: known as gâteau breton in French and kouign-amann in Breton, it combines flour, eggs, salted butter and sugar in equal parts. Add a sprinkling of magic for a kouign so good that the person eating it for the first time will be enchanted.
The Little Breton Bistro isn’t real life but a fantastical journey over which is cast a diaphanous gauze, a thick loveliness of coastline, cuisine and company. It demands an appetite for monologues on spirituality, love and loss, and those who appreciate the works of Nicky Pellegrino will find a worthy companion piece in this celebratory, life-affirming story.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones