August 2011

Provençal secrets

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Deborah Lawrenson pays homage to Daphne du Maurier’s 20th-century Gothic novel Rebecca in The Lantern, which interweaves two stories, past and present, both set in a crumbling manor in the romantic, rural landscape in the south of France. The Lantern contains deliberate similarities to the du Maurier classic, including a big house and a mysterious first wife, but offers them with a contemporary twist.

The story begins when the unnamed narrator (the first tip of the hat to Rebecca), called “Eve” by her lover, meets the charming but secretive Dom and begins a whirlwind affair that takes the couple to an abandoned house in the south of France. Eve and Dom live in splendid isolation among the lavender fields at Les Genevriers, but as the months go by, she finds herself wondering about his life, his parents and especially about his first wife, Rachel.

When a nosy neighbor begins to ask questions, Eve realizes how little she really knows about her lover’s past. Soon she begins noticing a sweet odor wafting through the house and imagines ghostly figures in the garden. Eve’s story is interspersed with that of Benedicte Lincel, an old woman who grew up in the house and whose elder sister mysteriously disappeared after starting her own perfume company based on the scents of her native Provence.

Though the short chapters with alternating storylines can make for choppy reading and the novel never quite achieves the eerie power and haunted sensation of its inspired source, The Lantern works best when the prose evokes the drama and sensuality of the Provençal landscape. Lawrenson, who splits her time between France and England, is clearly familiar with the small hamlets and villages that she writes about so beautifully.

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