When I read the title, The Baby of Belleville, and the sub-title, A Parisian novel of life, love and motherhood, I thought I knew exactly what to expect and settled back with a bar of chocolate, anticipating a cracking read that would take me on a nostalgic trip down memory lane. I love books where I can really identify with the main character, particularly when they deal with pregnancy, motherhood or married life, because they are things I know all about and it's great to laugh at or cringe at things you've experienced too. One of my favourite authors is Kathy Lette because she manages to find great humour in situations that many women have been through.
The blurb on the back of the book says : "Every new mother has a story to tell – and this is Jane de la Rochefoucault’s. It’s a story that contains all the familiar yet magical landmarks of feeding, teething, toddling, and measuring stuff in and out of Tupperware. But, as an expat living in Paris, Jane also faces some challenges they never mention in the handbooks. Such as, how to juggle a new baby with the demands of an aristocratic husband, a competitive nursing circle, an artisan plumber, and a formidably French (and possibly law-breaking) mother-in-law… " This just made me want to dive in even more, certain I'd identify with the expat in France/French mother-in-law aspect.
Well, I didn't dislike the book but I felt like I'd dipped my hand into a box of Maltesers and then bitten into a chocolate raisin. There's nothing wrong with chocolate raisins but if you bite into one expecting a Malteser, it won't taste right ! Jane's life couldn't be further from mine - or anybody else's really ! Not only is she married into an aristocratic and very idiosyncratic family, she also lives in a strange fairytalesque world where, at one point, she even manages to be in two places at once in a bizarre self-cloning incident.
All of the elements that I was expecting to find were merely hinted at. Paris is there as a backdrop but Jane is an Italo-American and the only people she has dealings with are immigrants - Muslims Without Borders, the Chinese couple downstairs, her American employer ... While Paris is undoubtedly a cosmopolitan city, I would have liked to have seen some more actual Frenchness in there. Then the motherhood. While baby Honoré is frequently mentioned, he seems to have little more than a bit part and Jane thinks nothing of taking off for a few days in a death-defying adventure, leaving him behind with a babysitter. How many real mothers could or would do that ?!
But despite this sense of surprise and unexpectedness, I didn't dislike what I was reading, once I realised it was a chocolate raisin and not a Malteser ! If you come to it with an open mind and no preconceived ideas of what you will find, it's an enjoyable, at times slightly fantastical book, packed with eccentric characters, gentle wit and exciting adventures. You won't find gritty realism but you will find a slightly absurd, strange world that will nevertheless suck you in as you marvel as its weird and wonderful residents and often bizarre goings-on.
In place of maternal tales to reminisce about and smile fondly at, you will discover a nice little slice of escapism perfect for reading by the pool this summer.
star rating : 4/5
RRP : £7.99 (but only £4.55 on amazon)
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Portobello Books Ltd (7 July 2011)