Left Bank opens with a parent’s worst nightmare. Olivier and Madison Malin, a glamorous Parisian power couple, are spending a day at PlayWorld Paris, Europe’s largest and most extravagant amusement park, when their six-year-old daughter, Sabine, disappears. Olivier and Madison are in the midst of a marital squabbleone of many, it becomes clearwhen they realize that the precocious Sabine has not returned from her ride on the roller coaster. It is in this state of panic that we first meet the Malins: Madison, a gorgeous American expatriate who has made her career in Paris as an actress, and Olivier, a public intellectual, writer, and gourmand, the darling of the Left Bank’s literary salons. Their fabulous French lifestyle seems almost perfectbut when Sabine goes missing, both Madison and Olivier realize they may be a bit more concerned with Vogue cover shoots and expensive cheeses than with raising their only child.
Nine months before the incident at PlayWorld, Madison hires Anna Ayer, a young twenty-something British girl with purple streaks in her hair and a tongue stud, to be Sabine’s nanny. Anna is fluent in French and English and is able to help with Sabine’s bilingual education, but soon after she moves into the chambre de bonne above the Malins’ posh apartment in the Seventh Arondissement, she finds that she has not only befriended the sweet and loving young girl but has become privy to many intimate secrets about this famous family’s personal lives. Madison, an elegant and icy woman who has shed all traces of her Texas-born heritage, is distant and curt with Anna, and often not much kinder to Sabine. She has no patience for many of the trappings of childhood, and prefers to let Anna fingerpaint and play imaginary games with her daughter while she is away on movie sets. Olivier does not wish to be bothered with “small matters,” as he refers to Sabine, and spends much of his time teaching, locked in his study, or entertaining a series of mistresses that everyone seems to know about but no one ever speaks of aloud.
Life in the Malin household becomes complicated when Olivier’s latest romantic conquest turns out to be Annathe two grow close after Anna rejects her French boyfriend and she begins attending Olivier’s intellectual gatherings. Before long, they find themselves having clandestine dinners at local cafés, enjoying romantic trysts at a local hotel, and hoping to avoid the prying eyes of Mme. Canovas, the apartment building’s concierge. Mme. Canovas, though she is a busybody, provides solace for Sabine when it turns out that Sabine ran away from PlayWorld on her own, tired of listening to Madison and Olivier’s self-involved bickering. But when Madison realizes her daughter feels closer to Anna than to her own parents, she decides it is time that she made some changes in all of their lives.
Told alternately from Anna, Madison, and Olivier’s perspectives, Left Bank is a bitingly sharp satire of marriage, family, and careerand a look at what goes on behind the apartment windows of Paris’s most exclusive and intellectual neighborhood. With an incisive wit, an ear for clever dialogue, and a keen understanding of self-perception, Kate Muir has created a delightful tale that is as charming and entertaining as it is revealing.
>Kate Muir writes a weekly column for The Times (London) and has worked as a foreign correspondent in Paris, New York, and Washington, D.C.
Like Anna Ayer, you are a Brit who has lived in Paris. Did you know many couples like the Malins? Is the casual way that Olivier’s extramarital affairs are treated in Left Bank common in Parisian society?
Living in Paris for four years, I met many grand couples like the Malins (and never became real friends with any of them), but the same solipsistic creatures exist all over the world. The difference in Paris is perhaps that an affair“une aventure”is part of sophisticated urban life rather than something shocking. For instance, senior politicians’ affairs are discreetly accepted in France, whereas elsewhere they might be all over the gossip magazines.
What inspired you to use Sabine’s disappearance as the centerpiece of the story? Do you think that every parent would have reacted the same way that Madison did once Sabine was found?
Losing a child is the worst possible nightmareI’ve felt that frozen fear when my kids occasionally disappeared in a supermarket or playground and then reappeared minutes later. I knew if Madison experienced that feeling, even for a day and a night, it would change her. I don’t think every parent would behave like Madison afterwardsher reaction reflected her previous deficiencies as a mother.
You have worked as a journalist and a foreign correspondent for most of your career. How has your career as a reporter changed your perspective of foreign lands? When did you first aspire to be a journalist?
Working in New York, Paris, and then Washington, D.C., as a reporter, I realized you can’t criticize or understand a country’s politics and customs until you live there, and even then, they often fail to make sense. I still miss America, and read U.S. news and blogs online. I always wanted to write, but I reckoned I would never get a proper job as a journalist, so I took a law degree at Glasgow University, Scotland. Big mistake. Then I went on to do a postgraduate diploma in journalism at Cardiff University and took my first job on the Ealing Guardian in London, a free local paper that people mostly used to line their cat litter trays. From there, the only way was up, and I moved on to The Times.
What is your opinion of the differences among French, British, and American cultures, and the way each treats relationships? What are the advantages and disadvantages of raising a family in each place?
I think the British and the Americans treat relationships very similarly. But the French appear to take passion more seriously, respecting any sacrifice, however impractical, that is made for love. The French are much more formal with their children, dress them better, and teach them old-fashioned manners. They also treat children like little adults, so they eat all kinds of wonderful foodsCamembert and celeriac are on kindergarten menus. If you read French child care books, there is no such thing as the tantrum-filled “terrible twos,” and perhaps we could learn from that.
Left Bank is in some ways the portrait of a love triangle, with sections told from each character’s perspective at different moments throughout the book. Why did you decide to structure the novel this way? Did you find yourself sympathizing with one character more than the others?
I decided to write from the perspective of three characters because I like having three versions of the truthit’s the same in real life. I also thought it would be challenging to write from the point of view of a Frenchman, an American, and an Englishwoman. I sympathized with different characters as I wrote. I began with a certain fondness for Anna and a distaste for Madison, feelings that reversed by the end of the book. Olivier was always hopeless in my eyesbut still attractive.
One of the most entertaining aspects of this book is the satire of Madison and Olivier’s careers. What is your opinion on the choices they made in life? Do you find the concept of the French “public intellectual” as pretentious and empty as Olivier portrays it? What about Madison’s career as an actress? What is the significance of her decision to take roles as “ugly women”?
We spend a lot of time reading about the careers of super-couples in newspapers and magazines, and we all knowindeed, hopethat the outward brilliance is not maintained at home, that there is some imperfection and humanity about them. Olivier and Madison, at least at first, make obvious, pushy career choices that turn out to be wrong for them. Regarding “public intellectuals,” I love France for having them and taking intellectual debate so seriously. There’s just no quality control, however, and some feted “great minds” deserve deflating. Madison faces the same problem as every forty-something actress: to make the leap into some greatbut less readily availablecharacter parts. (This never happens to leading men, of course.) The fact that she dares to play “ugly women” signifies her growing intellectual self-confidence, a confidence unattached to her beauty.
The novel addresses the consequences of people’s actions, and especially the effects that a parents’ behavior has on their children. Are there any particular experiences that you’ve had as a wife and mother that led you to write about these themes?
I’ve been lucky as a parentI’ve always been able to schedule some time off from writing so I can sometimes pick up my kids from school and spend an afternoon with them. I like having two livesthe silent writing one, and the boisterous, barking, child-filled one. I see how hard it is for parents who work full time, either because of tough economics or ego. When I meet rich people with “weekend nannies,” I worry. Madison and Oliver, at least in their initial incarnation, were too childish and self-obsessed to have children.
Madison and Olivier are portrayed as being very self-involved people, which is most likely a result of their wealth and celebrity status. Do you think that celebrity culture has the same influence on French society as it does in America and Britain?
I think the curse of celebrity leaves no country unturned.
Who are some of the writers you enjoy reading? What books or writers have influenced you the most?
Well, I love your Annie Proulx and Paul Auster, plus Haruki Murakami from Japan. I’ve got through many a long afternoon in the playground with the shorter poems of Paul Muldoon. My favorite writers come from my homeland, Scotland: Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is one of the most important books in my life, and I am deeply fond of James Kelman and Alan Warner.
Left Bank came out of my teenage obsession with the supposedly perfect lives and works of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. In Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay, the couple sort of adopt Xavière, a twenty-something girl who is sulky and difficult and throws tantrums. The Sartre and Beauvoir figures both adore her. I realized that Xavière was the nearest thing for them to having a child, and I wanted to explore that troubled area further.
This is your debut novel. Do you have any plans to write more fiction in the future?
This is my debut novel in America. I’m following Left Bank with a book set in the grittier, grottier world of a fishing port on the West Coast of Scotland, quite near Loch Lomond. It will not be called “Bonnie Banks.”
- There are many instances of class tension in Left Bank. Though Olivier’s parents no longer have much money, they are landed gentry and still behave very formally toward their son. Madison recalls that upon her first visit to their chateau she was “awed and thrilled by the grandeur, the feeling of an ancestral power rooted in this spot for centuries, something an American, however rich, could never replicate” (p. 107). What do Madison and Olivier think of this grandeur? How does it differ from class differences and behavior in America?
- Why does Madison feel the need to carry on an unconsummated affair with Paul Rimbaud? If she knows that Olivier is cheating on her, why does she not sleep with another man herself? What do you think is holding her back?
- When Madison discovers that Olivier has been involved in an affair with Anna, she knows she must take action. If she were one of your friends, what would you advise her to do? Do you think she made the right decisions?
- Discuss the development of Anna’s character over the course of the novel. She starts out as an independent young woman in a foreign country who seems to have a mind of her own; but in the end, she finds herself in a position much like Madison’s was earlier on. Do you think this is a result of her own failings or do you blame her involvement with the Malins?
- After Madison changes her life, forces Olivier to move out, and starts acting in plays in Paris rather than traveling to movie sets, Anna asks Luiza if she thinks “Madison will stick out being supermum for long?” (p. 286). What do you think? Do you think that Madison’s transformation is permanent? What about Olivier and Anna? Where do you see all of these characters in five years?
- Why do you think people (especially Americans and Brits) are so fascinated with the way the French do things? Madison is described as having “painstakingly maintained, polished, and educated herself to be a model of Parisian womanhood” (p. 104), and there are many books written in English about the romantic nature of Parisian life. What is your opinion of these notions of the French mystique? To what degree do you think they agree with reality?
- Why is it significant that Olivier has written a book about Chechnya yet he has no interest in speaking with people who are from Chechnya about their views on the situation? What does this say about his character?
- When Sabine and Madison are riding horses at Olivier’s parents’ home, Sabine suddenly takes off in a gallop, frightening her mother and angering her father. But when they arrive back at the house, Madison smiles at her daughter and says, “You don’t know you can do that until you’ve done it” (p. 119). How does this incident reflect on Madison and Olivier’s relationship with their daughter? What kind of insight does it offer into the way they feel about each other?
- What role did Mme. Canovas play in this story? Why do you think she hid from her neighbors the fact that she had cancer?
- We learn very little about Madison’s childhood and upbringing in Left Bank. What do you think her family life was like in America? What influence did that have on her becoming an actress and moving to France?
- After Anna meets her father for the first time since he abandoned her and her mother, she is unhappy with who he turns out to be: “She should have left Guillaume Ayer as fiction. Now that he is fact, the bottom has fallen out of her world” (p. 320). Why do you think this unfortunate meeting ultimately led her back to Olivier?