Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce
Reviewed by Annabel
Since I discovered the feelgood novels by French author Antoine Laurain, brought to us in translation by Gallic Books, I’ve seized upon each new release upon publication. Vintage 1954 is his seventh novel, his first new work since French Rhapsody, which I reviewed for Shiny here (Gallic having published translations of two of his earliest novels in between – I note there’s one more early novel untranslated as yet – fingers crossed).
Those who’ve read any of Laurain’s books will know that he is a big user of what Hitchcock called ‘MacGuffins’: enabling but otherwise unimportant objects that are essential to the plot. We’ve had the President’s hat, a red notebook and so on and now we have a bottle of vintage wine, a Château Saint-Antoine Beaujolais 1954 – the best that vineyard had ever produced (in reality 1954 was a poor year for French wine).
The prologue begins with a UFO sighting in 1954, the first of many across the country, Pierre was on his way home from the pub. Ridiculed thereafter as ‘Mr Flying Saucer’ when the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind confirmed to him what he had seen, Pierre opened the bottle of wine he’d kept from 1954, gave a slurp to his dog, and man and dog disappeared the next day.
We return to the present day in an apartment block in Paris. After a break-in to the building’s cellars, Hubert Larnaudie, who is chair of the residents’ committee, gets trapped checking out his own cellar – he is rescued by three other inhabitants and invites them to share a bottle of Château Saint-Antoine Beaujolais 1954 he found down there. The foursome are a disparate mix: Magalie is a Goth, she is an antiques restorer; Julien is a mixologist from the famed Harry’s Bar who is related to Pierre and has a passionate interest in UFOs; and Harley riding Bob is doing Air B’n’B – he’s the archetypal ‘American in Paris’.
The four get to know each other over the bottle and go off to their beds. The next morning. Hubert goes out to an appointment, and everything looks a little different – he puts it down to the heritage weekend and boards the vintage bus that comes along.
On Place Vendôme, two old-style Rolls-Royces waited outside the Ritz. A well-dressed man who bore a passing resemblance to the Duke of Windsor got out of one. Hubert realised that it wasn’t only the RATP who had gone to town on the vintage vehicle theme.[…]
When he reached the Hotel Meurice, he took out his phone to check the time but was greeted by ‘No service’. Hubert signed and looked instead at his watch. All the technology in the world could not replace the best mechanical watch movement, he said to himself as he drew back his sleeve.
But it soon becomes clear that he, and the other three, have returned to 1954. It’s cleverly done, and Laurain is able, to misquote Proust, to go in search of a lost time. We are presented with a wonderfully nostalgic view of France, when Les Halles was still a food market and when we weren’t reliant on technology, when people actually chatted to each other on the bus.
They enjoy their time in ‘50s Paris, and Laurain populates it with cameos from celebrities of the age as we’ve already seen. The Duke of Windsor is joined by Dali, Edith Piaf, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, and Jean Cocteau amongst others. They also meet some people from their own pasts, notably, Hubert meets his grandfather. Julien gets a temporary job at Harry’s Bar – where he creates a cocktail for Magalie, with whom he is falling in love. It’s all lovely and romantic in 1954, with Laurain at his charming best, but they can’t remain. They finally work out what they must do, and this involves taking the train to Beaujolais, but it’s not quite that simple! However, Laurain makes us believe that the time-travel will work once again.
The four main characters are all well drawn, and Bob is based on a man Laurain met on an American book tour. Again, Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce maintain the high quality of translation we expect from them, preserving the humour and ensuring the Gallic whimsy doesn’t become sentimental.
This is vintage Laurain, pun intended. It zips by, gathering you up into his brand of perfect Gallic whimsy, giving you a big dose of heart-warming romance and an upbeat finish. Vintage 1954 is not quite his best perhaps, but his books are all so engaging, that doesn’t matter – just enjoy this super summer read.
Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors, and would like to time-travel back to that 1954.
Antoine Laurain, Vintage 1954 (Gallic, 2019) ISBN 9781910477670, paperback original, 208 pages.
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