Betrayals and reconciliations, forgiveness and unforgiving attitudes riddle this bestseller from France. Giving in to a writer's ultimate subject, a writer, Djian paints a portrait of an author beginning to question his flagging talent, along with his sexual performance and generally his relationships with the people who mean the most in his life.
Is Francis, now 60 years old, really hiding out on the Basque shoreline? It's been 12 years since he last wrote something, mourning the loss of his first wife and a daughter in a tragic car accident. But now he has a second wife, and his surviving daughter, Alice, has left the nest to become a well-known actress and, to her father's surprise, a wife and mother of twins.
Then Alice disappears. It's not that she hasn't previously gone missing from her rocky marriage in Paris, but this seems different. Time drags on and on and no one hears a word about the flamboyant star, reminiscent of Aimee Semple McPherson's orchestrated disappearance from Hollywood almost a century in the past. Sister Aimee stumbled out of the Mexican desert near Arizona a month later, claiming she'd been kidnapped. And no ransom note appeared for either woman.
Djian layers the plot by having Francis hire a childhood friend to search for Alice. This female gumshoe just happens to be about to pick up her ne'er-do-well son, Jeremie, from prison. Francis becomes entangled in that strange family's affairs by trying to help the son survive in the world, for which he appears to be remarkably unfit. Francis lacks in the compassion department, too, as he reveals when he helps the boy bury his dead dog. Francis describes the scene:
He stood still for a moment, in front of the open trunk of the car, while torrential rain beat down on his head, before bending down to pick up his dog. Once again, I was happy to admit that the loss was tough for a young fellow who had just come out after six years in prison. In any case, all this was not very good for my coachwork; I didn’t know whether Audi treated the inside of the trunk with antirust.
Eventually he begins to suspect the boy of having an affair with his wife, Judith, after he hires Jeremie to spy on her. She spends nights away from home, across the border in Spain where she deals in real estate. It makes little sense for Jeremie to follow her around in their home area, but he reluctantly complies with Francis' inane desires.
How much worse can it get, we wonder. Much. As more is revealed about Francis' relationship with his first wife, a cycle revolves, disclosing wheels within wheels. Alice's husband attempts to keep the story of her disappearance tops in the news, further straining Francis and Judith's marriage by dumping the twins on them. She attempts to be a good step-grandmother, but her work takes her away from home more often. Overnight trips fuel Francis' suspicions while he tries to cope with caring for his twin granddaughters. So he begins a new novel, bemoaning his wretched life and every moment that distracts him from his "comeback." Why did he choose this moment to try writing again?
Francis' childhood friend begins dying of cancer before she finds Alice, Jeremie appears to abandon his sick mother as he sinks further into a violent depression. Francis tries to juggle all these relationships and tragedies, which, we know from our own lives, is virtually impossible to accomplish without something falling. Death is always a downer; betrayal makes us uncomfortable within our own skins; and Americans may not appreciate the European literary lack of a happy ending. If so, at least they will have had a skillful peek into the clockwork of human lives. Sometimes loose ends simply hang.