By Moira Hodgson – The Wall Street Journal, March 7th, 2013
When Laure and Marie, two French sisters in their early 30s, discover that their parents are going to sell the family’s Cap d’Antibes villa, L’Agapanthe, they devise a plan to keep it. They will invite a series of rich and single men to spend a weekend, hoping to lure one into a marriage that will secure the estate.
The plotline of “The Suitors” isn’t exactly riveting, but it serves as a frame for a lighthearted comedy of manners set in one of the fanciest spots of the French Riviera. And when it comes to life among the superrich elite, Cécile David-Weill knows what she’s talking about. Her father was chairman of the merchant bank Lazard Frères, and the family spent their holidays at Cap d’Antibes. I can imagine her doubled up in laughter as she wrote this novel (her third). Many of her characters are surely based on people she knows. Who, I wonder, was the guest who sat with his elbows on the dinner table, “his knife and fork laid obliquely on either side of his plate like the idle oars of a drifting boat,” knocking back his 1961 Cheval Blanc without a thought? (It sells these days for about $3,000 a bottle.) Or the man who brought a house present of a jet ski?
A lone outpost of old money and good taste in nouveau riche Cap d’Antibes, L’Agapanthe is the last place for a jet ski. It is, writes Ms. David-Weill, une bonne maison, combining luxury, impeccable taste and a refined way of life. Manners are of prime importance. So is understatement. A château is called a “house” (just as, in Edith Wharton’s time, summer mansions were known as “cottages”). A 200-foot yacht is a “boat.” The sisters’ grandmother orders her sable coats shaved to look like mink in order to be less ostentatious.
L’Agapanthe has nothing so vulgar to offer its inhabitants as a glorious view of the Mediterranean coast. Instead, the villa is built around a central courtyard like a monastery with cloisters. It is, says Ms. David-Weill, “as if the sea had decided to behave like an experienced courtesan and simply suggest its presence, with bright touches shimmering through the shade of lush plants and undergrowth, instead of flaunting itself like a trollop, as it does before the other villas along the Riviera.
By Cécile David-Weill
(Other, 421 pages, $16.95)
Such refinement, of course, isn’t to be expected of the neighbors. “Jumped-up vulgarians,” they play lord of the manor, mistreat their servants, and require an army of bodyguards with walkie-talkies, machine guns and booming electronic voices for security. As children, Laure and her sister were content to play in a sandbox on the terrace, but today the owner of the house next-door (who flies the Russian flag) provides his offspring with a miniature golf course, a go-cart racetrack and inflatable castles. Their Saudi neighbors exterminate mosquitoes on an industrial scale with machines diffusing blue lights that vaporize the insects with ghastly zapping sounds.
Laure is the narrator of the story and adopts the tone of a gracious hostess (even providing the reader with menus and guest lists for the visits). But her eye is merciless. What to do when a stand-in head butler sets out tea bags on the drawing-room table like a magazine display and modernizes the flower arrangements Sedona-style, with square vases filled with gravel, cacti and sticks of dark wood? Or the chef who updates a simple “Artichoke Salad” into a “Symphony of Vegetables en Demi-Deuil”? And what about the guest who brings a present of a scarf covered with, of all things, designer logos? Ms. David-Weill calls the words “luxury brand” a “perfect oxymoron.”
French high society, she points out, has no dearth of minefields for the unsuspecting outsider. One suitor, a celebrity CEO, uses words like “Enchanté” and “Bon appétit!” Totally provincial. But he damns himself completely the moment he is introduced to Laure’s mother. He calls her “Madame Ettinguer” in a double faux pas. Not only is he unaware that the addition of the family name after “Madame” implies that she is his social inferior; he mispronounces her surname, “which is written Ettinguer but pronounced Ettingre,” something anyone of good breeding would have known, “as they know that Le Trémoille is pronounced La Trémouille, that one says Breuil for Broglie.” Ms. David-Weill doesn’t come across as snobbish, but such details may make some readers cringe.
“The Suitors” owes no small debt to Nancy Mitford and her best-selling novels about the foibles of the British aristocracy, “The Pursuit of Love” (1945) and “Love in a Cold Climate” (1949). Ms. David-Weill’s characters aren’t as indelible as Mitford’s (such as the doughty Uncle Matthew, based on her own father, who referred to all his daughter’s suitors as “sewers”); nor is her writing (at least in Linda Coverdale’s translation) in the same league. But her gentle mockery is entertaining. The father in “The Suitors” bids for Old Masters over the telephone after dinner, and he couldn’t imagine entering a capital city without wearing a tie.
But the translator has tried too hard to be jaunty and colloquial. When speaking, characters quip, chortle, sniff, blurt out, cackle, huff, pipe up and chime in. The simple word “said” isn’t enough. The upper-class Laure, moreover, would never use a word like “powder room” except to be ironic, nor would L’Agapanthe have a “lounge.” Elegant euphemisms aren’t upper-class.
“The Suitors” sets out to be a farce and a frolic, but throughout there is an undertone of nostalgia and wistfulness for a disappearing way of life. Wasn’t it more fun at the dinner table in the old days when earnest discussions of subjects like gluten allergies or Jivamukti yoga were unthinkable? The essence of good manners was “to speak frivolously of serious things and seriously of frivolous ones.” And no one ever dreamed of asking where the old money came from a hundred years ago, when it was still new and quite possibly suspect.
Ms. Hodgson is the author of “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food.”