We all have dreams about what we’d do if we won the lottery. In my case, it’d involve a lovely house in a garden square in Kensington, with enough room for a proper library; and even more travelling. We like to imagine that these things would make us happy and finally allow us to become the people we’re meant to be. But is that really so? What would it really be like to find our bumbling, workaday lives transformed by the sudden influx of riches? This bittersweet little novel is based around the eternal truth that wealth and happiness don’t always enjoy a positive correlation. With its modest heroine and cosy small-town air, it’s a moral fable with a surprisingly bleak sting in its tail.
Jocelyne is forty-seven years old. She runs a haberdasher’s in the little town of Arras, visits her father in a nursing home and treats herself to occasional nights out with the twins who own the salon next door to her shop. Her marriage hasn’t always been easy, but she and her husband – ironically called Jocelyn (a million-in-one chance, as she observes) – have found a measure of peace in their middle age. She knows that he dreams of fast cars and big TVs and a prettier, younger, thinner, blonder wife, but she also knows that these are merely fantasies and don’t threaten her. Their two children have grown up, flown the nest and show little inclination to keep in touch; the memory of their third, stillborn daughter still haunts both Jocelyne and Jocelyn. Life hasn’t always been easy. And it still has its challenges. But Jocelyne is wise enough to love her imperfections, her husband, her humble little blog, her even more modest shop.
And then it all changes. The twins encourage Jocelyne to have a shot at the Euromillions lottery. A mysterious ticket sold in Arras scoops an eighteen-million euro jackpot; but no one knows who the winner is. No one except Jocelyne, that is, who keeps her amazing good fortune entirely to herself, hiding the dazzling cheque away. She doesn’t even tell her husband; in fact, she especially doesn’t tell her husband, because Jocelyne realises very quickly that money can promise false solutions. Certainly, she now has the power to give her husband everything he’s wanted – the car, the TV, the box sets (not the pretty young blonde, though) – to give her father better care and support her two rather footloose children. She can treat herself to Chanel and Dior and shower herself in jewels. But she’s wise enough to step back and to ask how this will affect her life. Things aren’t perfect, it’s true, but she’s happy enough. When – and if – she takes the plunge, will her new fortune enable her to follow up on all those dreams she had when she was young? And how will it affect her relationships with all those she loves and cares about?
It probably all sounds a bit sentimental and virtuous – an ordinary woman suddenly given the power to change her stars, and musing over what she should do – but there’s an abrupt key-change about halfway through. I was surprised by the tack Delacourt chose and I would warn those looking for a bit of Gallic escapism that this might not be quite the feel-good book you’re after. It has much to say about human nature, but it isn’t always positive, and Jocelyne’s journey turns out to be more traumatic than she could ever have imagined. While it’s a quick and easy read, translated with a light touch by Anthea Bell, it doesn’t serve up quite the kind of story you might be expecting from its haberdasher heroine and its cutesy cover dotted with different kinds of buttons. But that hasn’t stopped legions of fans falling for this novel, which has been a bestseller in France and has been, or will be, translated into more than twenty languages. It seems that, at root, we all want to be reassured that happiness is something we carry within ourselves: a cliche, perhaps, but evidently one that still appeals to people.
I haven’t read all that much contemporary French fiction, so it was good to add Delacourt to my list of authors, even if his book left me with mixed feelings. I will, however, stress that he creates a very convincing middle-aged female first-person narrator (this ability to write believable opposite-sex narrators is still rare enough to be worth celebrating). Has anyone read his other novels and, if so, which should I go for next? And which other modern French talents should I be looking out for on the translated fiction shelves?