Hunting and Gathering
by Anna Gavalda
Published by Riverhead Books
448 pages, 2007
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Hunting and Gathering is a surprising departure from Anna Gavalda's earlier works. Where Someone I Loved and I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere offered dark explorations of love lost, denied, or the road not taken, Hunting is an airy romp through all things French.
Twenty-six year old Camille Fauque works on a night cleaning crew. Home is a maid's room in an ancient apartment building. This seventh floor studio is minuscule, unheated, crumbling. The lavatory is "Turkish": a shared squat toilet topped by a showerhead. To wash, Camille pushes a grate over the toilet. At five feet, nine inches, she weighs 105 pounds and is dedicated less to anorexia than eradicating her existence. Her life is comprised of working, smoking and avoiding her mother's phone calls. A terrible past -- the only true tension in the story -- is intimated and gradually revealed.
When Camille falls ill from malnutrition and exhaustion, she is rescued by her neighbor, Philibert Marquet de La Durbellière. "Philou" lives on the first floor of Camille's building in an enormous, equally ancient apartment. Stuttering, obsessive, afflicted with tics, 36-year-old Philou is a history buff too overcome to do more than sell postcards and babysit the magnificent flat, currently ensnared in a family legal dispute.
Philou's character represents the book's greatest failure. A complex, charming creation, he is much involved with Camille early on, tending her as she recovers, reading to her, insisting she join him and his roommate, Franck, in his apartment, which offers niceties like heating and plumbing. But Philou's early ministrations, along with his tongue-tied presence, fade into the background as Franck Lestafier overtakes the plot.
A boorish, hotheaded, sexy chef, Franck is given to drinking, drugging and womanizing when not slaving away in the kitchen, where, we are told, he is quite talented. Gavalda devotes a great deal of energy to Franck's working life, offering readers many pages of luscious French food porn.
Of course Franck and Camille take an immediate dislike to one another, leading -- unsurprisingly -- to a simmering sexual tension.
The book's length gives Gavalda room to embellish: we learn Camille is a hugely gifted artist with a demanding, selfish mother. Her father is dead. Franck is the product of a one-night stand. He was raised by his beloved grandmother, Paulette, now succumbing to the depredations of age. Unable to care for her, Franck is forced to put her into a nursing home, a move devastating to them both. Philou is the sole male descendant of an impoverished noble family, heir to only the name.
This all sounds sad in the telling, yet the book reads remarkably quickly. Camille and Franck's sufferings are given almost by rote; there is a pervasive sense throughout that everything will work out nicely. At one point Gavalda even steps away from the narrative, addressing the reader George Sand style:
It's a hypothesis. History won't take us far enough to confirm it. And our certainties never really hold water. One day you feel like dying and the next you realize all you had to do was go down a few stairs to find the light switch so you could see things a bit more clearly.
I kept reading, waiting for the Terrible Event, or the Unexpected Death, or the Big Secret that Turns the Plot to happen. But the Big Thing never transpires. Instead, Camille and Franck engage in their dance, drawn together, then apart in the inexorable push-pull of a Nora Roberts novel. Philou is conveniently whisked offstage for a protracted family visit in the country. Even when he finally reappears, he remains serenely oblivious to Franck and Camille's fierce circlings.
The combination of Philou's affection and Franck's home cooking returns Camille to life: she begins drawing again, focusing her talents on the apartment. The place is stuffed with old linens, bottles of quinine, top hats, silver, empty perfume bottles, old letters, ancestral portraits, and a bathroom dating to 1894. The rambling space exists outside time, an enchantment. Camille fills sketchbook after sketchbook, much to the delight of dealers Pierre and Mathilde Kessler, who have courted her since art school.
We see more of Franck: while lacking Philou's sophisticated vocabulary, a gentle soul resides beneath the awful manners and constant swearing. He cooks for Camille. He visits Paulette every Monday, his only day off. He genuinely cares for Philou. And he wonders about this strange, skinny, short-haired girl taking up so much of his thinking.
But a sense of unreality pervades. Though Franck agonizes over Paulette, Camille and his unhappiness at work, we know his suffering will be short-lived. As for Camille, despite her difficult past, complete with poor parenting and lousy romantic choices, her life falls into place all too easily. She is attractive, talented, cool. Through all the fights, refusals and empty threats, Gavalda's spare, lovely prose moves us along with the rapidity of a Harlequin romance. Things get even better when Camille and Philou convince Franck to bring Paulette back to the apartment, where Camille becomes her willing caregiver. Even Philou, the easiest target for sorrow, finds happiness -- and love -- in theatre school, where his idiosyncrasies are welcomed.
Perhaps I am too much of a cynic; perhaps my tastes are too dark. But Gavalda is a fine writer whose earlier work plumbed the depths of quiet desperation (not necessarily just the English way). But not here. Hunting ends in grand style, leaving writers like Frances Mayes and Diane Johnson in plumes of garbure-scented dust. Love, an inheritance, passionate sex, babies, a chic gastropub, a house in the country: check each box, for all apply.
We can only hope this talented writer decides to return to more serious work. Meanwhile, Hunting and Gathering, ably translated by Allison Anderson, is perfect beach reading. Bon appétit. | April 2007
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. She blogs at http://barkingkitten.blogspot.com. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.