Book review: The Slow Waltz of Turtles by Katherine Pancol #BastilleDay

(cover image Allen & Unwin)

One of the great joys of plunging into a great deal of French literature is its capacity to be both resolutely true to life and yet quirkily magical at the same time.

It’s not an easy balance to pull it off, and while The Slow Waltz of Turtles by Katherine Pancol doesn’t always manage it perfectly, there is enough adroitness in this tale of invention and reinvention to keep anyone immersed and entertained throughout.

In effect a sequel to Pancol’s 2013 novel The Yellow Eyes of Crocodile, which set in train many of the events which find their culmination in its successor, The Slow Waltz of Turtles nevertheless manages to stand handily on its own two feet (or should that be four in a nod to the titular animal?).

Granted, there is some confusion at first but by and large, pacol succeeds in plunging us elegantly and without becoming mired in endless exposition, into the world of successful novelist Joséphine, her children, prima donna fashion designer-wanna-be Hortense (18) and goodhearted, newly-in-love Zoé (14), her brother-in-law Philippe, for whom mutual attraction is a complicating factor, bitter, self-involved sister Iris, vegeful mother Henriette (who only loves one daughter and it’s not the protagonist) and a host of neighbours, teachers, friends and would-be lovers.

It’s a messy mix at times, occasionally melodramatic, sometimes sweet and always whimsically good hearted which is quite a feat when your novel also contains a serial killer on the loose, aggrieved and feuding neighbours, obstructed affairs of the heart and some magical realism which verges on the oddly strange at times.

“Unlike her mother or her sister, who could make people obey or love them with a glance or a smile, Joséphine was shy. She had a self-effacing way, apologizing for being present to the point of stuttering or blushing. For a while, she thought that success would boost her self-esteem. A Most Humble Queen was still on the bestseller lists a year after coming out. But money hadn’t bought her confidence. She’d even wound up hating it. It had changed her life and her relatiosnhips with other people. The only thing it didn’t change is how I feel about myself, she thought with a sigh.” (P. 5)

That is a lot of narrative twists and turns and Pancol doesn’t always execute perfectly on the many elements competing for attention.

While Joséphine’s storyline is given due prominence and comes to a satisfying, if tragedy-tinged conclusion, other people do not fare so well.

Or rather other strands.

The serial killer plotting, which in some ways underpins quite a bit of the storyline, never really feels like it amounts to much.

Someone dies, everyone is horrified, the police investigate and on we go, with one of the supposed big drivers of the plot never really getting up much of a head of steam, resulting in an unevenness of storytelling which doesn’t overly affect the enjoyability of the book but which does jar your immersion in the tale which happily bounces between Paris and London every bit as much as it switches tonal gears.

It’s hardly a fatal issue and enough of the murder mystery lands, and lands successfully, to propel the story along to a satisfying conclusion; the main thing to keep in mind here is that the serial killer is not the main game in town, serving mostly to play into Joséphine’s many ups and downs.

Katherine Pancol (image courtesy official Katherine Pancol Facebook page (c) Silvie Lancrenon)

The magical realism aspect too is intriguing, centering on the casting of spells and a preternaturally-gifted baby, and while it gives some of the lesser characters something to do, you could have quite easily excised this thread without disturbing the overall narrative.

It is, in other words, surplus to requirements.

Oddly, while Henriette, Joséphine’s mother, is the cause of much of her angst and chronic lack of self-esteem, thanks largely to her decision, for reasons unknown, to love one daughter and not the other, she barely features in Joséphine’s world, only really entering in, directly at least, into the final act.

Granted, her arc, which reveals her to be a venal, nasty, self-centred woman, does inform much of what makes Joséphine tick, she too could have been taken out of the storyline with little harm done.

Where Pancol does do well, and very well indeed, is with the main cast surrounding Joséphine, such as her daughter, brother-in-law Philippe, nephew Alexandre and best friend Shirley (who lives in London), her son Gary, all of whom are given their moment in the narrative sun and whose presence proves crucial to the journey that Joséphine undertakes in an often emotionally-fraught story which speaks to the need all of us have to be happy, truly happy but only if we can determine where that happiness lies.

“It was magical to observe Philippe without his knowing. Just by looking at his back, she could see the end of his night and the start of his day, his taking a shower, kissing his son off to schoool, his hungry anticipation of bacon and eggs with a cup of espresso, the hope of a new day. He was yielding himself to her, unguarded. She was deciphering his back. She lent him dreams and warmed him with her kisses, and he surrendered. She reached out her hand and drew a caress in the air.” (P. 295)

It soon becomes clear that Joséphine isn’t entirely sure where that magical existential pot of gold might lie.

Barely a year off from the death of her husband, which took place during their divorce, she is a successful novelist living in a gorgeous apartment block in the centre of Paris, with two mostly loving daughters, and the possibility of a love after a great deal of emotional heartache.

But as we all know, having some of your ducks in a row, or even all of themm, does not great contentment or happiness guarantee, and The Slow Waltz of Turtles concerns itself with exploring how Joséphine finds her way to a great measure of happiness in the fact of a reasonably unending series of obstacles.

While the novel isn’t perfect, and feels oddly uneven and discordant at times, Joséphine is a delight, a real, heartfelt woman who has every reason to just give up on all kinds of people in her life but who doesn’t, even when their presence either tortures her or fails to fulfill her expectations.

For all the flawed magically real or extraneous elements in this book, it is overall a delightful read, thanks to its ability to articulate what it means to be transitioning from one significant chapter of her life to another in a world which rarely gives us the time to do that thoughtfully or meaningfully, in a way that feels fresh and whimsical despite elements that are anything but.

Light and bright and with enough likable characters who work and work very nicely, The Slow Waltz of Turtles is not going to change your world but with its beguiling mix of emotional insight, thoughtfulness and lightness of tone, which it somehow maintains despite everything, this is one of those books that is enjoyable without being life-changing which is fine because Joséphine does enough life altering for the rest of us put together and that is, after all, the whole point of the story.

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