Amandine:A Novel by Marlena de Blasi

What I liked about this book?  Reading it made me feel as if I were seven again, lying on the floor in my parents house on a Sunday afternoon watching a Shirley Temple movie on the black and white TV.  The main character, Amandine, is cute, curly haired, self-possessed, just like Shirley. The adult men she meets up with– a priest and a French farmer–kiss her forehead and have serious talks with her, a child; the women stand-in for her lost mother, hold her hand, adjust her curls give her perfumed baths and refashion their grown up dresses to fit Amandine. They feed her hearty bread loaded with apricot marmalade while holding her hand in front of a roaring fire. She never complains and asks straightforward questions. What does maybe someday mean?  What is a Jew?  What is war?   Rather than dance like Shirley, Amandine plays the piano.

Amandine is indeed a charming story about a charming young girl and her complicated family. The writing is as equally charming in this romantic World War II novel. Marlena de Blasi’s lush language, detailed descriptions (oh! the fragrance and food detail will saturate your senses! You can’t help but recognize the writer’s early success as a food writer.), and simple rhythmic sentences dotted with French, Polish and  get-out your dictionary English words woo the heart in to a sort of nurturing sway that compels you to turn the pages. It is a sanitized war story, so no harsh images stick i the mind’s eye even though bad things happen.

The novel is set mostly in France. The initial chapters take place in Poland and setup Amandine’s background. She is an aristocrat, granddaughter of a Polish princess and a count who ended his own life and his lover’s life because of the desperation of an extramarital affair: a dead end. Amandine’s mother is the legitimate child of the princess and the count who committed suicide. When she is seventeen, Amandine ‘remains with child’ (De Blasi’s language is at times stilted) after a fling with a Polish officer; she gives birth to Amandine.  Amandine’s grandmother is a bit vindictive. She rushes the infant off, supposedly to Switzerland, to save the reputation and future of her seventeen year-old daughter, who of course was abandoned by the handsome soldier who also happened to be related to the dead woman who had had a love affair with her husband the count..

Rather than Switzerland, the wealthy and beautiful grandmother, who has eyes like a deer, drops the infant Amandine off at a convent in southern France. She deletes all links back to Poland to assure no one will ever trace Amandine’s her lineage. The beautiful grandmother does leave one hint: an amethyst necklace, which Amandine recovers when she is a young teen.

Everyone at the convent where Amandine lives falls in love with her. Everyone, but the head nun. She is a wicked nun, but not too wicked. Everything in this book is nice, nice, nice. Very nice.  Even the suffering.  Even the war, even the lack of food. Even the patched clothes and cold baths. Amandine’s hair never wilts.  Her charm never turns sour.  Her cuteness is always very cute. She speaks up for herself. She defends others.  She is never clumsy. She plays the piano and dances like an aristocrat–from blood memory.  De Blasi pounds heavy on this theme/fantasy: You can pluck the aristocrat out of her surrounding but you can’t take the good breeding out of the blood.

From the novel: “…we inherit life much as we do the slope of a cheek or silver in a velvet cushioned-box.  And to know that it’s we who then perpetuate the life we inherit–gently or ferociously, according to our natures–repeating the ancestral follies and the traitorous kisses and leaving the legacy nicely intact for those who will come after us.”

Yes, it is a soap opera. Soap operas have fanatic followers. I have a feeling this book will garner the same. Too, Marlena DeBlasi has already carved out a spot for herself in the publishing world. Amandine, her second  novel, is not as good as her non-fiction. It is certainly better, not as self-conscious and soppy, as her first novel That Summer in Sicily.  Amandine is not an adult love story, as are the author’s living-in-Italy-with-the- Venetian-banker books.

Amandine is a very romantic, breezy, innocent story about a serious time in history.It is a book that you could read  out loud to your young daughter on a Sunday afternoon.

Ballantine Books

324 pages