Calm before the storm

This is my review of The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon.

A C20 take on "Tom Jones", this novel's original French title of "Le jeune homme vert", denoting the hero Jean's initial natural naivety, has been lost in translation to become, "The Foundling Boy".

Jean is discovered in a Moses basket on the doorstep of a simple, kindly childless couple. The wife Jeanne claims him as her own to bring up, taking a stand against the attempted interference of Mme de Courseau, the imperious lady of the local manor. Jean turns out to be handsome, robust, charming and irresistible to women, yet somehow manages to remain fundamentally decent and unassuming. Despite doing quite well in his school leaving exam, Jean begins to drift through life with no clear aim. He takes the opportunity to travel, mainly to England where he accepts the hospitality of some wealthy or dubious (sometimes both) characters. When he needs money to live, or wishes to stay near his parents in rural Normandy, Jean works at a variety of dead-end jobs of the kitchen porter or nightclub bouncer variety. In the process, he learns a good deal about life, human nature and love. The urge also grows to discover his real parentage: he is not too bothered about the identity of the father which may never be known, but is keen to know who is mother is. The insights jotted in his private journal reveal a certain cynicism. For instance, he notes that keeping friends separate from one another is often a good idea.

The story rambles along with so many digressions that I began to suspect the author of padding out a thin plot. Some of the early chapters are hardly about Jean at all, but rather the local landowner Antoine Courseau. Bored with his cold wife and the duties of his inheritance, Antoine keeps taking off, often at high speed, in his latest Bugatti, drawn inexorably to the warmth and light of the Mediterranean coast and to his waitress lover Marie-Dévote. Perhaps a little shell-shocked by World War 1, Antoine seeks out old comrades-in-arms with whom he has more in common than his family.

The appeal of this book lies its powerful evocation of time and place, in particular France on the brink of World War 2, sleepwalking into disaster with the complacent assumption that, if it comes to it, the Germans will be beaten back in a few weeks. The coverage of events in England is less convincing, as are some of the more exotic characters leading an often extravagant lifestyle such as the mysterious Prince with his black chauffeur Salah, or the conman Palfy.

The author's tendency to reveal the future fate of a particular character, or to note whether or not he/she will reappear in the story later is an irritating distraction – like having an over-enthusiastic person leaning over your shoulder to tell you what's going to happen next – and this unnecessary device tends to break any sense of immersion in the story.

Yet, despite this and the occasional "longueurs", I enjoyed many of the vivid descriptions, quirky characters, wry humour and amusing incidents enough to want to read the sequel, "The Foundling's War" – "Les Vingt Ans du jeune homme vert" in French. Written very much from a man's viewpoint e.g. of women, I suspect this is likely to appeal more to male readers.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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