Monday, November 28, 2022

A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny

First Sentence:  “Oh, merde.

Going to the past can be painful and dangerous.  It is there where Chief Inspector Gamache and Agent Jean-Guy Beauvoir first meet during the case of two children so emotionally damaged they may have murdered their own mother, Clotilde Arsenault.  The older sister, Fiona, is sent to prison, while the brother, Sam, is deemed too young to be tried. Returning to the present, Gamache and his wife, Raine-Marie, take in a now-released Fiona and facilitated her enrollment in the École Polytechnique, from which she is now graduating along with Harriet, bookshop owner and ex-psychologist, Myrna Lander. Natalie Provost, a survivor of the Montreal Massacre where 14 were killed and 13 were wounded, all women, is receiving a special award.  Sam showing up at the graduation and is planning to stay in Three Pines, is an unwelcome surprise to Gamache, who never trusted the young man. 

Myrna and her partner, Billy, are thinking of moving from above the bookshop.  Instead, it is suggested they break through to an attic room that had been bricked off by Billy’s ancestor and about which he’d only recently learned upon receiving a letter dated 1862. In the room, they find a trove of unusual objects, some of which had been stolen from Gabi and Olivier’s bistro, and an enormous painting. The painting looks to be “The Paston Treasure,” better known as A World of Curiosities, painted in the 1800s and housed in the U.K.  But oddly, the painting in Three Pines is a copy filled with modern objects.  Also in the room is something long sought by Raine-Marie; a grimoire, a textbook of magic, inscribed with the name Anne Lamarque, a woman who’d been banished as a witch. After the death of the woman who sent the letter to Billy, Gamache brings in Agent Ameila Choquet to set up an Incident Room in Three Pines in order to learn how all these pieces fit together, and how they lead to a serial killer Gamache arrested years before.

Never has this reviewer written such a long synopsis.  Never has Penny written such a book where this long a synopsis was needed.  This is not a bad thing.

Penny paints wonderfully visual pictures and is such a lyrical writer.  She imbues some of her characters with depth, wisdom and poetry, while others are as basic and ordinary as people often are.  “While he’d [Gamache] become an explorer of human emotions, Jean-Guy Beauvoir was the hunter.” Penny also incorporates an informal, yet complete, cast of characters within the story.  The reader learns new things about the characters, which keeps them developing and expanding.  Ruth, the eclectic poet, provides humor, as well as wisdom and history essential to the plot, while Clara’s information about the painting is fascinating.

The interspersion of literary quotes and poems adds so much to the book.  They may inject humor, but they may also connote other emotions, melancholy, sorrow, or a warning. It’s not unusual for the reader to spend time looking up the source material for some of the quotes. 

It’s hard not to have favorite characters.  One may be the brilliant and fascinating character of Amelia Choquet with her complex history.  She is described by Myrna as—"If Ruth and a trash compactor had a child,…”  Her use of three particular lines at the end of the book is incredibly powerful.

There can’t be a story in Three Pines that doesn’t include food. While the meals may be simpler than in some previous books, still one is tempted by chilled pea soup, grilled Gruyère and sweet onion sandwiches; salmon, fresh-cut asparagus, baby potatoes, and green salad with vinaigrette; charbroiled steak with chimichurri sauce and frites; and wild mushroom ravioli with sage brown butter.

The story is the most complex Penny has written to date. It begins by jumping back and forth in time yet is easy enough to follow.  One must pay attention to the characters and their relationships. There is a lot to this plot that can’t be exposed in a review. It isn’t a book to stop and start but is best read by becoming completely absorbed in the story.

A WORLD OF CURIOSITIES is a story of family, love, and forgiveness while being filled with misdirection and red herrings at every turn, even though the clues are there.  Even though one instinctively knows, at least hopes, everything will be alright, the suspense is such that the end may engender tears of relief. The reader is so invested in the characters, one experiences their pain, fear, and anger, but also their love.  This is one of the most suspenseful books Penny has written and one that must have required a tremendous amount of research.  It may also be one of her best. 

A WORLD OF CURIOSITIES (Susp-Chief Insp. Armand Gamache-Three Pines, Canada-Contemp)
Louise Penny – 18th in series
Minotaur Books, Nov 2022, 384 pp.

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