This is my review of Le Mystere Frontenac (Le Livre de Poche) by Francois Mauriac.
A wealthy bourgeois family with property in "les Landes", region of pines and marshes, the Frontenac s are burdened with the need for conformity and respectability. Widowed early, the pious and neurotic Blanche Frontenac dedicates herself to her five children. Her brother-in-law Xavier, makes a similar commitment: he is miserly with himself, keen that as much wealth as possible should be safeguarded for the children. We see flashes of his softer side as he makes camphor-powered toy boats for them. Yet he is flawed: he cannot resist taking a mistress, the longsuffering Josefa, too socially inferior for him to marry, and goes to excessive lengths to conceal her existence from the family, needless to say all in vain.
The brilliant, academically inclined Jean-Louis accepts his duty to run the family business. The frail and hypersensitive younger brother Yves, who shows early promise as an avant-garde poet is allowed to follow his whims: the close bond between these two is compared to that between Xavier and his deceased brother, who resembled Yves.
Described as one of Mauriac's more positive works (I must admit to preferring the bitter venom of his other novels), you probably need to share his sense of Catholic mysticism to appreciate this fully. Not much happens, the "mystère Frontenac" is so subtle you could miss it, I found it all too mawkish at times, and agree with the reviewer who found it "dated".
Despite this, it is a powerful exercise in nostalgia, evoking a lost way of life on the brink of World War. The magic of childhood with the freedom to play, without adult cares, is captured well. Descriptions of the landscape are very vivid. Dialogues are sharp and realistic, with what may have been a new trend in the 1930s to intercut them with people's private thoughts, often very different from what they say. Some observations on the mindless and futile nature of the modern commercial world of mass production about to destroy the Frontenac way of life, are also prescient – I could have done with more of that angle.
The structure seems quite weak and I would have liked a fuller development of the interplay between the four main characters: Blanche, Xavier, Jean-Louis and Yves. However, it is worth reading as an early modern classic