America with its strange food, impossible-to-understand English, and terrifying school – bullies the size of football players – is the last place Emile de Bonnery wants to be. Even finding a friend is small comfort. For he belongs back in France, living in the Lyon chateau with grandmother Mamie Madeleine.
He longs to be close to Papa, who comes and goes at the whim of his mysterious work. He wants to hear the story of the watch – the birthday present Papa gave him two months before his fourteenth birthday. Always before Papa was there to tell him the stories behind his curious birthday presents. But a few days after he got the watch, he and Mama had to leave. “He’s taken up with another woman,” Mamie Madeleine told him. Then she sent Mama and him home to Atlanta to live with Grandma Bridgeman. Now Papa is out of his life entirely.
Elizabeth Musser begins Searching for Eternity by plunging us into these early days of Emile de Bonnery’s in 1960s Atlanta. She goes on to tell the story of how Emile makes his fatherless way through the next decades.
The plot is captivating, full of surprises and set within actual historical events. Despite appearances, Emile is sure that his father is really a spy and in trouble. After all, he was part of the French Resistance during the war and has always disappeared without explanation for weeks on end. Only this time he hasn’t come back.
Eternity, his one friend, a girl who is as much of an outcast as he is, mocks his theory until they make a discovery about his birthday watch. Eternity has her own issues which complicate things and entrench her and her siblings firmly into Emile’s world.
We follow Emile closely for the first while and then drop in on him at more sporadic intervals. Several decades after the narrative begins – at the time of Klaus Barbie’s arrest and subsequent trial in the 1980s – all the various plot ends tie together.
The characters in the book are strong. Emile, who tells the story in first person, is convincing in his early days of homesickness as he substitutes French words for elusive English ones and aches for the familiar atmosphere, friends, food and family of Lyon. Our sympathies with him only grow as he matures into a thoughtful young man.
Strong, determined Eternity develops from a somewhat bossy, chip-on-the-shoulder adolescent into a beautiful, accomplished yet always mysterious woman. Grandmother Bridgeman gives the story a firm emotional center with her warmth and wise spiritual counsel. Finally, Jean Baptiste de Bonnery, Emile’s father, overshadows the whole book, though he makes appearances mostly in flashbacks in Emile’s memory.
Musser has a captivating storytelling style. We are party to Emile’s thoughts as he tries to make sense of the mysterious pieces of his father’s life, understand why his father abandoned him and gain the courage to embrace adult life in spite of the disappointments of childhood. During this coming-of-age process Musser always manages to be appropriate to Emile’s changing maturity level. Introspection interspersed with action give the story depth – as in this bit of conversation between Eternity and Emile from his first months in Atlanta. Eternity begins:
'I’ve never felt homesick for a place I’ve known … but sometimes I feel homesick for something I’ll know in the future. Sometimes I can almost see it or feel it. A place where children are happy and grownups get along and there is respect and order and sunshine and I’ll never run out of books to read!'
It was a new idea, being homesick for the future, but I understood and smiled. 'Like a gigantic safe room.'
…I sat on the steps trying to make this ambush of strange feelings go away. I missed Lyon, missed Mamie Madeleine….Part of me longed to get on a plane a fly straight back to Lyon. But the other part of me ached for Eternity Jones and her family. And I wondered how it could hurt so much to be thinking about people I had known for less than three weeks.
Musser handles the growing relationship between Emile and Eternity with an ever-so-deft touch, making it believable and sweet but never saccharine. Additionally, her familiarity with the French language and culture as well as the city of Lyon makes the book a rich and convincing read.
In the theme department the story explores love in various guises including the love of fathers for sons and sons for fathers, parents for children, extended family and friends for each other, the love of sweethearts, and the love of God for us all. Bullying, from schoolyard bullying to the behavior of abusive parents and war criminals, is another thread that winds through the story. Eternity’s journalistic interest in the civil rights movement focuses our attention on the racial bullying that society sometimes sanctions. Betrayal, revenge and forgiveness also play big parts in Emile’s narrative.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Searching for Eternity. It opened my eyes to an element of World War II – the French Resistance – that I had heard of only in passing. Its double-edged title had me guessing till the finish. And its ending left me with a sense of hope. If you’re looking for a book to liven up the cold, dull days of winter, Searching for Eternity is an excellent choice.