By Peter Mayle
295 pages
New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
ISBN # 0-679-78120-X

Comments of Bob Corbett
November 2002

You can’t judge a book by its cover nor its title! When I saw the title I thought it might be a novel centered around the life of Cezanne. Instead I got a delightful read, but one of the lightest I’ve read in ages. The charming story, with its goody, goody main characters is a crime story in which the goody goodies commit the smallest of crimes. We also have bad characters, as bad as villains in the old melodramas, and about as serious. We expect art dealer, crook Rudolph Holtz, to be wearing a black cape.

Holtz has contracted with Nico Frazen, art forger, to create a fake of a Cezanne painting -- Lady With Melons – even that is played for laughs. The painting belongs to rich Frenchman, Bernard Denoyer. He wants the fake for his own home and the original to be sold in the secret market of multi-million dollar paintings. The crime here is simply to avoid the high inheritance or capital gains taxes. But Holtz has two fakes made, the one returned to Denoyer and now two, the original and the second fake. Now comes the intent to commit a more serious crime, a fake is to be sold as an authentic Cezanne.

Photographer Andre Kelly stumbles upon the fraud, or at least something very fishy going on with the Denoyer Cezanne and enlists good-guy art dealer Cyrus Pine to help him figure out what’s going on. We need a love interest thrown in, so stunningly beautiful Barbados born Lucy Walcott joins the hunt. At least Pine is willing to take the good folks into this underground world of selling the ORIGINAL without proper tax documentation, but, of course, this good guy’s not up to the selling of the other fake.

It is a very good crime story as those go. Fun plot, with too many James Bond style meals especially in Parisian restaurants and talk of the jet setters. I did enjoy it that the characters, good and bad, didn’t operate from so much secret information and great skills in spying as though I were into science fiction. Nope, other than the enormous amount of travel and money spent on food, most of the plot was developed in ways that fairly ordinary people might have done such things.

However, the book had a strange impact on me. For many years I was always reading two books at any given time, one I termed, unjustly, my “junk” book, normally a novel. These were works of espionage and such that were, like this book, quite light, not provoking much thought and read almost exclusively for light fun. I would also have a second book, much more serious and demanding, either teaching me or challenging my view of the world or self in fundamental ways.

About ten years ago I took stock of my reading, realizing that I only read about 50 books a year. I read slowly and with care. I decided that the saying on tee shirts I’ve seen was true: “So many books, so little time.” With encouragement from my partner I gave up the “junk” books and have been reading only books that are, with rare exceptions, more rewarding and challenging. I am extremely happy with the change.

This book did a lot to reassure me in my choice. When I first got into the novel I was just so pleased. It was witty, well-written, gripping, mainly believable and a fun plot. I was just zipping along. Then things began to gnaw: nowhere was I challenged, puzzled, thinking about the world or myself as most of the books I read make me do. Next came the excesses. The good folks were too good, the bad too bad. There were too many meals in the same sorts of restaurants and too much discussion of the good wines. That got boring. At least the plot didn’t. Two things were telegraphed: the good guys would certainly win out and they would at least commit some sort of a crime with the underground sale.

What bothered me, though, was precisely the complete predictability. I wasn’t 25 pages into the book when I knew that no REAL hard would come to Andre Kelly the main character, nor would anything happen to Lucy or Pine once they were established to be on Kelly’s side. And the excesses of totally good and totally bad characters ended up grating.

I’m happy I read the book. I did have fun. But more importantly, it has sent me scurrying back to my book shelves of the unread books, hunting for something a bit more about the “real” world, more challenging, more revealing of the complexities and puzzles of human existence. I think that’s the main reason I read – to discover more about the world, myself and my relationship to others in the world.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett