Diana Hendry

The French connection

If ever there was a novel to which that old adage about not judging a book by its cover could be applied, it’s this one.

The French connection
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The House with Blue Shutters

Lisa Hilton

Corvus, pp. 419, £

If ever there was a novel to which that old adage about not judging a book by its cover could be applied, it’s this one.

If ever there was a novel to which that old adage about not judging a book by its cover could be applied, it’s this one. What you’d expect, picking up Lisa Hilton’s The House with Blue Shutters and seeing, on the front, a nondescript young woman contemplating a blue-shuttered house, is romantic fiction. Historical, claims the blurb. Indeed there’s both romance and history here in a novel that moves between German-occupied France of 1939 and today’s France of second homes and holiday gites. But overall it’s food and sex (sales-team pressure?) that dominate and detract from both romance and history.

Lisa Hilton has written three historical biographies (The Real Queen of France, Mistress Peachum’s Pleasure and Queens Consort); this is her first novel. It’s perhaps unsurprising that of the two stories she attempts to weave together, the historical one — which tells of a village’s involvement in the Resistance and of the love affair between Oriane, a farmer’s daughter, and Karl, a German officer — is by far the stronger. The contemporary story concerns Claudia, a beautiful art lecturer, who after a series of ‘London loves . . . men unremembered and unmourned after ten years of bed-hopping’, finds herself pregnant by Sebastien, who doesn’t love her, and resolves to marry Alex, who does. Off they go to France, where Alex’s brother, Jonathan, and wife, Aisling, run La Maison Bleue as a guest house.

Somehow the two stories refuse to gel. Hilton tries to establish an intuitive rapport between the young Claudia and the old Oriane, as between two women who have loved unwisely. But Claudia’s story is slight and unconvincing compared to the moral drama of Oriane’s collaboration and its consequences. Occasionally I was reminded of Irène Némirovsky’s powerful Suite Française and wished that Hilton had focused entirely on Oriane’s story.

The rather sly Sunday Telegraph puff on the book’s cover (to hark back) reads: ‘Hilton’s style is positively edible’. This can only refer to the number of dishes (spatchcocked quail, baked peaches with rosewater crème fraiche) which Aisling cooks and/or obsesses over for relatives and/or paying guests. Hilton writes well about food, about the ‘brief rosy season of quinces’ and the ‘rich luxury of winter game’, but the character of Aisling has little function other than providing Hilton with a way of writing about food and enjoying a culinary dig at the British (PGs who transport frozen chips in a coolbag from Hemel Hempstead). Which brings me to the novel’s first line, that all-important opening sentence that has writers spitting blood: ‘ “What shall I give them for pudding?” asked Aisling.’ Please!

And I know, you’re wondering about the sex. Well, there’s Claudia and her friends who do everything the magazines tell them to do — oral, anal, cowgirl, spanking — while thinking of it as being as necessary as getting their roots done or not missing spin class. (Spin class?) And then there’s Oriane, in her lover’s jackboots and nowt else, and a nastily salacious rape scene.

I suppose you could define this as a holiday read. You get food, sex, history and France. I just wish someone would tell me why, on page 4, La Maison Bleue is described as having turquoise shutters.