This heartbreaking novel begins as a train pulls into the station in Janvilliers, France, in the middle of the night, and a “slight, dark-haired girl with two heavy suitcases, frowning into the rain and trying not to feel frightened,” steps down from the train, hoping there will be someone there to meet her.
So opens this short novel by Sebastian Faulks, who is perhaps most famous for Birdsong, a work set again in France both before and during the Great War. It is the mid-1930’s in The Girl at the Lion D’Or, and France is still struggling to recover from the cataclysm that was that war.
The girl’ name is Anne Louvet. Anne is twice an orphan. She has arrived to take a job as a maid in a hotel. Someone has been sent to meet her, a nineteen year old with a spotted face named Roland, the first of several men she encounters in the small village of Janvilliers who will desire her body and plot consciously or unconsciously to satisfy their desires.
France in the 1930’s was probably not a good place to be a young woman alone and without family, especially to be an uneducated but pretty young woman. Anne is almost entirely vulnerable. And to make that vulnerability apparent to us, Faulks gives us an early scene, Anne’s first night in the hotel. She takes a bath, and Roland, having knocked a hole in the wall between a linen closet and the single bathroom available to the help, spies on her. What Roland sees in a charming body “full of health and latent energy; the physical contrasts of girl and woman, still not quite resolved.”
Very soon, Anne meets Hartmann, a well-to-do Jewish lawyer lately come from Paris with his wife to live in a grand estate just outside the village. Hartmann is almost immediately attracted to Anne, and he quickly becomes her protector. From there, he becomes sort of her sugar daddy, paying the rent on a private apartment that Anne could not afford on her miserly wages.
Hartmann pretends to himself that he is just being kind to a young woman. But he has lost desire for his wife. Even when she waits naked in bed for him, he is not aroused. When he lies to his wife in order to take Anne away for a weekend at a wealthy friend’s estate, his passion gets the better of him. They make love and Anne is happier than she has ever been.
Predictable, the happiness can’t last, and Hartmann breaks Anne’s heart. She is taken advantage by another man, who gets her drunk first, and she runs away, to Paris, where, alone and penniless she applies for a job at a cafe. The proprietor’s gaze, travelling up and down her frame, makes us wonder if Anne won’t be victimized again very soon.
Like everything Faulks does, this book is wonderfully written; he really is a virtuoso of prose style. His characters, too, are very real and very engaging. The ending of the book is shattering precisely because we care so much about Anne. It’s a hard world she lives in; for all in France it will soon become even harder.