Fans of Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel, “Sarah’s Key” will likely race to read “The Other Story.” Already a bestseller in France, “The Other Story” delves into issues of identity and creativity and the way the choices of past generations resonate in the present.
Nicolas Duhamal is taking a break with his girlfriend Malvina at an exclusive, luxe Tuscan island resort. The author of an internationally-bestselling novel, “The Envelope,” Nicolas has come to the Gallo Nero in part to find a way to write its successor, “the goddamn book he is pretending to be writing.”
“The Envelope” was inspired by his own discovery of his dead father’s real identity. Nicolas had been forced to prove that he was, indeed “French” when applying for a new passport. His father wasn’t French born: he was Russian. “The Envelope” told a similar story of a surprising family secret and made Nicolas one of the world’s most celebrated authors. He likes the fame and readily succumbs to the lure of celebrity, but deep down he fears that his critics are right, that he is a “product” and not a writer.
Nicolas thinks of the fluid writing process for “The Envelope” and feels guilty. He wrote that novel four years ago, on Delphine’s rickety kitchen table, rue Pernety, with Gaia babbling on one side, the kettle whistling on the other, Delphine on the phone with her mother or Gaia’s father. No one could prevent the words from tumbling out of him, spewing with passion, anger, fear, and delectation. There was never a moment when his inspiration lagged.
Now, it’s a different story. Nicolas is crippled by writer’s block, saddled with an unloved lover who drops a bombshell on him during the course of their weekend, and has somehow been sucked into an unsavory Anthony Weiner-like sexting relationship with a fan. He’s a mess who is redeemed -- barely -- by his sincere desire to find a story that compels him to tell it. For Nicolas, writing is all about the story. Yet he looks for ways around his block. One terrific passage catalogues the tricks of other writers:
. . . Vladimir Nabokov had written on index cards. Virginia Woolf, Victor Hugo, and Philip Roth wrote standing up. Truman Capote had to lie down with a coffee and a cigarette. Road Dahl had slipped into a sleeping bag before sitting on his chair. Salman Rushdie wrote first thing in the morning, wearing his pajamas. . . Joyce Carol Oates preferred to write before breakfast. . .
Life at the Gallo Nero is meticulously described by de Rosnay. Nicolas is both lulled by its luxury and yet spurred to recall the family secrets that galvanized him into writing his first book – this is the book’s “other story.” A fellow writer at the resort reminds him of what it means to write:
Writers hold the key to the world. So they should be vain. Literature is a kingdom where writers rule, like kings, like emperor. A kingdom where emotions do not exist, where truth does not exist, where history means nothing. The only truth is the words on the page and how they come to life. That’s why writers are vain. Because they are the only ones who know how to bring those words to life.
In the end, Nicolas will come away from the weekend ready to take up his father’s Montblanc pen again and tell a surprising story.
While “The Other Story” zips along, it is somehow strangely unsatisfying. Nicolas, who does seem to be an astute observer of the resort’s excesses and his own failings, relies in the end on a scene from yesterday’s headlines for the inspiration he needs to tell another story. This is an unfortunate, out of scale, conclusion to a book that is at its best moments a thoughtful portrait of a writer trying to reclaim his voice.
“The Other Story” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.