Charlotte Gray – a bit too grey for me.

There is little doubt that Sebastian Faulks knows quite a bit about France and her role in the second world war.  No one can deny the level of research that he must have done to make sure his French trilogy novels, of which Charlotte Gray is the last book, were factually correct.  I can fully appreciate the work that goes into a book like this, it is therefore all the more disappointing when it doesn’t live up to your expectations.  I have loved some of Faulks’ other works; Birdsong, Englby and On Green Dolphin Street were all really engaging, informative, beautifully written and entertaining.  Unfortunately I have placed Charlotte Gray next to A Week in December on my shelf – symbolic as a bit of a disappointment.  There we have 5 books, 3 of which I have enjoyed, 2 of which I have not.  I will get to why I didn’t enjoy Charlotte Gray in a second, but I just want to explore this issue further.  If I had read this book having read no other books by Sebastian Faulks, I may have put my disappointment down to bad luck, it’s just one of those things, sometimes you just don’t get on with a book.  The trouble is, I have read and enjoyed Faulks’ books before, so the disappointment has weighed more heavily on my mind.  It is almost the disappointment at the lack of consistency in the quality of writing that bothers me more than the quality of the story itself.  Does that make sense?  I feel slightly let down.  It’s awful really isn’t it?  Putting that weight of expectation on a writer to continually produce great work?  Having said that, of course, it’s all completely subjective.  Charlotte Gray got great reviews when published, I happen to have not enjoyed it.

The book follows the second world war exploits of a bright young woman sent to France as a courier by a government intelligence outfit.  Rather than returning to Britain after carrying out her errand, she stays in France to find her lover, an RAF pilot, who went missing while on a mission over France.  There is something about this book that is really flat.  The characters are pretty much all one-dimensional.  Charlotte’s behaviour throughout the story is inconsistent.  Sometimes she is controlled, intelligent, following the rules.  At other times she seems incapable of making a decision, flighty, and just a bit dim.  I didn’t warm to her or particularly care whether she found her chap or got back home.  The RAF lover character was really a plot device for Charlotte to stay in France once she had completed her task.  It just wasn’t believable enough.  At first she wants desperately to find him and then she seems to decide that it’s pointless.

Early in the book we learn she has an issue with her father, which you know will be resolved at some point.  While in France, she befriends an elderly artist, the father of a resistance worker she has teamed up with.  I thought that this old fellow was going to help her work through her issues with her father, but it never quite got there.  When we finally learn what the issues are, it’s not nearly as awful as suggested.

The love affair between Charlotte and her RAF pilot, Peter, is also not really believable enough.  She’s at a party, you turn the page and she’s suddenly deeply and passionately in love with the guy.  I understand that times were different and there was a feeling of desperation with relationships, of not knowing what might come.   Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn describes this feeling of uncertainty and passion much more convincingly.  There are long sentimental paragraphs where Charlotte and Peter explore their feelings for each other.  When you re-read them, they don’t say anything – it’s just words strung together.

I felt he wanted to write a book about the resistance in France, how the Jews in France were persecuted and somehow weave a romance into it all.  It was contrived and didn’t work for me.  What was interesting was the level of detail regarding the confusion in France at that time.  The occupied and non-occupied zones, the different resistance groups working against each other, the fate of French Jews, the depth of feeling against the English.  I was really interested in these parts of the book and incredibly moved by the scenes in the concentration camps.

A few years ago I read Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.  That book is a first hand account of the evacuation of Paris, the occupation of France and the persecution of French Jews at the hands of their countrymen and the Germans.  It is much more moving and believable than Charlotte Gray and definitely worth a read.

3 thoughts on “Charlotte Gray – a bit too grey for me.”

  1. I love Sebastian Faulks’ writing; when it is at his best he had that rare ability to submerge you completely in a character’s world. But it was so long ago that I read Charlotte Gray that I confess I can’t remember whether this was in the love or ‘meh’ pile. I remember that of his books that I adored the ‘girl at the lion d’or’ was a fave, as was the non fiction incredibly written ‘The fatal Englishmen’. I also agree with your assessment that his writing can be hit and miss. I was not a fan of Engleby, coming as it did after Lionel Shriver’s We Need to talk about Kevin.

    I think, for me, some of his work is character driven, and it is these texts that linger in your mind long after the last page; the plot driven manuscripts, on the other hand, can lack cohesion and forward momentum, as you say possibly burdened by the exposition that can come with too much research.

  2. I’ve heard of a lot of people being disappointed with this book. I also was really not feeling the love story. Even if you get over the fact that they fell wildly in love in such a short amount of time, it’s still a bit over the top going to France in the way Charlitte did to find him!

    I think the only reason I enjoyed this book at all was because I was travelling through France at the time, and following a similar route to the main character! It brought the countryside and story of the resistance to life in a way that woudn’t have been possible back home in England.

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