'The Little French Bistro' is charming but unfocused

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 - 2:59pm

Layered with prose as smooth as the Seine flows, flowery descriptions of French landscape and thoughtful details of French food and music, Nina George’s “The Little French Bistro” takes you on a sweet, thoughtful trip to Kerdruc, France.

Along with the delightful illustration of the French seaside lifestyle comes the story of Marianne, a 60 year old German woman in an unhappy marriage, her life a constant battle against sadness and hopelessness. In a bout of frustration on an evening in Paris, Marianne makes the decision to end her despondent life by flinging herself into the river Seine. However, upon surviving the fall, she realizes that she deserves to be happy. Marianne travels down the coast alone and is absorbed into life in the coastal city of Kerdruc. It is there she meets an eclectic group of French foodies, painters, musicians and lovers. There she falls in love with music, food and, for the first time in awhile, life. Despite quickly growing comfortable with her romantic new lifestyle, Marianne’s husband Lothar has no idea where she has gone off to, which becomes one of many conflicts in the plot.

“The Little French Bistro” attempts to tell the story of heartbreak, loss, second chances and the small joys in life through a group of well-developed characters and overlapping romantic storylines. However, it is a bit uncentered. When Marianne arrives in Kerdruc the plot loses its focus — not sticking to Marianne’s narrative, but instead jumping between a cast of characters we meet in the coastal town who all have their own character arcs and plot lines.

Although Marianne engages with these divergent plots, it takes energy to keep up with all of the details. It is deceiving as that “light summer read,” with its colorful front cover, but instead takes a great deal of focus to fully absorb. Despite this scattered plot construction, the opening few chapters of the novel do catch the reader’s attention, and that initial attachment to Marianne as not just a character but as an honest, loving and maternal person made me want to finish the novel.

“The Little French Bistro” attempts to serve as the pair to George’s most popular novel, the ever charming and endlessly popular “The Little Paris Bookshop.” However, the novel poses as a distant cousin at best. Where her previous novel was focused and simple, with a lovely plot and pages of concentrated yet lyrical prose, “The Little French Bistro” demands a greater deal of attention, weaving in and out of romantic internal monologuing, intense action, dialogue and prose.

That is not to say that “The Little French Bistro” is not worth reading. It manages to charm its reader, making up for its lack of focus in its idiosyncratic description of the French coastline and Paris, evoking a sense of wanderlust.

The characters, despite some adding not much to the plot or taking away from the main narrative, are all well-developed and distinct. Due to her grandmother-like charm, the reader will desperately hope Marianne will see her purpose in the world. Readers will be completely charmed by the chef, restaurant owner, painter, waitress and more who adopt her into their misfit family and help her to realize this purpose.

Though the novel was not immensely relatable for me, nor would I recommend it to college students, I see what George was trying to do in writing it, and appreciate the risks she took with it, whether or not they were successful. I had high expectations for this piece, considering I am a big fan of “The Little Paris Bookshop,” and I would not say I was disappointed; however, I do not believe these expectations were met.

If you are a fan of George’s previous work, greatly appreciate fiction set in Europe or are looking for something that preaches “it is never too late,” this could be the novel for you. I am looking forward to seeing what George comes up with next, and if she decides to stick to her theme of fiction pieces set in Europe.