My mind called for another light read this week and heaven knows that it’s never wise to ignore such a desire! After rummaging through my shelves, I picked a novel which is probably labelled a chick lit and, in fact, it can be called women’s fiction with full right because men have only minor parts in it. Such writings very rarely attract my attention and it hardly ever happens that I enjoy reading them. However, it turned out that The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol is more than just a book to distract from everyday life and to stop thinking after a hard day. Under its boringly superficial surface I found the detailed psychograph of an introvert’s mind and also the insider’s view on writing a historical novel.
Katherine Pancol was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in October 1954 and grew up in Paris, France. After her literature studies she worked in different jobs until she became a journalist in 1974. Five years later she made her debut as a fiction writer with the novel Moi d’abord (Me First) and moved to New York for about ten years. While there she attended creative writing classes at Columbia University and published three novels. Katherine Pancol returned to France in 1991 and brought out another seven novels before The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles (Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles), the only one of her books available in English so far, earned her international acclaim in 2006. Together with La Valse lente des tortues (2008; The Slow Waltz of the Turtles) and Les Écureuils de Central Park sont tristes le lundi (2010; The Squirrels of Central Park are Sad on Mondays) it makes up the Josephine Trilogy. The author’s latest published work is the Muchachas Trilogy, a series of three novels released in 2014under the titles Muchachas 1, 2 and 3 . Katherine Pancol lives in Paris, France.
The main setting of The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles is Courbevoie, a not really posh town just outside Paris, where the Cortés family settled down to save money. Antoine “Tonio” Cortés lost his exceedingly well-paid job as head of sales and since then the family has been living off the generous indemnity, the family’s savings and Joséphine Cortés’s meagre salary from her work as a historian for the CNRS, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Centre of Scientific Research). Money is running low and yet Antoine isn’t ready to accept a less respectable job than he had. Instead he idles away his days and begins an affair with the manicurist Mylène. Joséphine has long pretended that everything was alright, especially in front of their daughters Hortense (14) and Zoë (10), she can’t shut her eyes to the situation anymore, though. It comes as it has to: the couple argues and Joséphine throws out her husband who moves in with Mylène. Only when Joséphine finds herself alone in the kitchen, she fully realises what she has done and fear overcomes her because she has never had to take care of herself yet. Moreover, she has her daughters to think of and her salary is scarcely enough to make ends meet. She knows that she could ask for help. Her venerated and beautiful sister Iris, who is married to the renowned international lawyer Alexandre Dupin, wouldn’t let her down, nor would her wealthy stepfather Marcel Grobsz. Joséphine, however, has taken it into her head to manage all by herself. She is ready to take any extra job that she can get and luck is on her side. Alexandre offers her (out of the blue) to work for him as a translator and without giving it a thought she accepts. In the meantime her husband seized an opportunity which he believes will make him rich and moved to Kenya with Mylène. He manages a Chinese crocodile farm in which he invested not just Mylène’s savings but also the money from a bank loan. When Joséphine learns that thanks to her husband she is deep in debt and that the instalments are in arrears, she is shocked and at her wits’ end, but once more fate offers a solution. At a dinner party Iris pretended to write a historical novel and the present editor is eager to publish it. Iris talks Joséphine into being her ghost-writer promising to pass on to her all revenues of the book. Reluctantly Joséphine accepts and sets out to write the historical novel, while reproachful and greedy Hortense drives her crazy and she meets a mysterious, but very handsome stranger doing research in the library. All the while her best friend Shirley who lives next door gives her moral support.
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles begins like the ordinary story of a family and its problems, but then it takes a turn to metafiction. The basic plot lines are very realistic because they just retell the vicissitudes of life as they can strike virtually everyone of us any time. It’s the expensive bourgeois setting along with a couple of unusual turns and elements that give the novel drive and power. Unfortunately, the author’s inventiveness also reduces credibility as the story progresses. A member of the English royal family hiding for years under false name in a Parisian suburb with her son? A publisher keen on bringing out a historical novel by a new writer, moreover one that hasn’t even been started yet? Mind you, that’s too unlikely and yet not far enough from reality to be absurd. The outlines of parts of the historical novel that Joséphine is writing are an enriching element although to me they sometimes felt too lengthy and lifeless. On the other hand, it might be interesting to know what A Most Humble Queen would be like if it were actually written. All main characters of the novel, introverted and highly sensitive Joséphine most of all, appear in flesh and blood before the eye and also get psychological depth through the narrative trick of switching ever again to first-person stream-of-consciousness. The author also succeeds well in making felt the emptiness of Iris’s wealthy existence revolving around shopping, looks and fashion. Admittedly, Joséphine is quite naïve and nothing against happy endings, but in my opinion it all goes too smoothly for her. After having finished the novel the closing phrase of fairy tales popped up in my mind: “… and they lived happily ever after”. Towards the end it also annoyed me slightly that the author’s didactic purpose became too obvious. Some passages actually reminded me of recommended autosuggestions from self-help manuals. Language and style, however, are fluent and easy to follow. Even reading the French original I didn’t have any problems.
By and large I enjoyed The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol quite a lot although I don’t expect it to ever be listed in the canon of world literature. The above mentioned shortcomings of the plot and Joséphine’s mantra-like repetitions of home truths about life hardly lessened my pleasure and I’m ready to recommend the book for reading.