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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Foundling Boy

Michel Déon

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Title: The Foundling Boy
Author: Michel Déon
Genre: Novel
Written: 1975 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 413 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Foundling Boy - US
The Foundling Boy - UK
The Foundling Boy - Canada
Le jeune homme vert - Canada
The Foundling Boy - India
Le jeune homme vert - France
Jean - Deutschland
  • French title: Le jeune homme vert
  • Translated by Julian Evans

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Our Assessment:

B+ : charming, genial storytelling -- good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Independent on Sunday . 8/12/2013 Leyla Sanai
New Statesman . 25/2/2014 Jane Shilling
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/6/2014 Diane Johnson
The Spectator . 11/1/2014 Anthony Cummins
Sunday Times . 15/12/2013 David Mills
TLS . 30/4/2014 Nicholas Hewitt

  Review Consensus:

  Charmed by it

  From the Reviews:
  • "With the publication of The Foundling Boy, highly praised by William Boyd and Paul Theroux, many more can now enjoy Déon’s quiet, wryly funny prose and story-telling abilities. (...) A delight." - Leyla Sanai, Independent on Sunday

  • "Déon’s coming-of-age novel, with its charm sharpened by its affectionate satire of the mores of provincial life between the wars, deserves a place alongside Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and Le Grand Meaulnes" - Jane Shilling, New Statesman

  • "The novel is rich in the stock characters we have come to know from French movies. (...) We Americans tend to see the French interwar period through the pages of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Janet Flanner, in lively scenes of art and alcohol-fueled Parisian gaiety, but it’s the mood of nostalgia for a simpler rural society, before the shattering events of World War II, that Déon sets out to portray." - Diane Johnson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)errible title, lovely book (.....) He’s fond of resolving the fate of minor characters in little proleptic leaps, a technique that often looks smug, but Déon, now in his nineties, writes with such charm that you don’t mind if he lords it now and then. His novel leaves you feeling better about life, not worse, which might be part of why it hasn’t previously been translated." - Anthony Cummins, The Spectator

  • "In spite of some critics’ reservations, The Foundling Boy presents many of the characteristics associated with the Hussards’ novels: the intervention of the author proclaiming the book’s shortcomings, deliberate lacunae and a general playfulness. The novel is crammed with literary echoes of the Hussards’ heroes of the interwar years (and patrons in the 1940s) (.....) This first volume alone is a satisfying piece of writing, and it makes a welcome addition to an all-too-neglected body of French fiction in English." - Nicholas Hewitt, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The foundling boy of the title is Jean Arnaud, found as an infant by Jeanne and Albert Arnaud, the caretakers of the 'La Sauveté' estate owned by Antoine du Courseau. The year is that: "of the treaty of Versailles, 1919", and the novel chronicles Jean's life -- in fits and spurts -- through the outbreak of World War II; a sequel, forthcoming in translation as The Foundling's War, continues his story.
       Jean is not entirely a greenhorn (the original French title is: Le jeune homme vert), but a bit of the naïf continues to cling to him even as he matures; as one friend sizes him up when he is already nearly adult:

you're raw material, shapeless, have not the slightest idea how to keep a boring conversation going and possess none of the tools one needs to navigate one's way through a world of pretence.
       Jean is down-to-earth but unsure of his place in the world -- beginning with the mystery about his parentage, and including exactly where he stands with the girls (and then women) he grows up with and is closest to, Antoinette du Courseau, four years older than him and one who shifts from a protective sister-like role to something closer, and then the love of his life, Chantal de Malemort. Large for his age, he begins to enjoy some more adult adventures when he is just in his early teens, but throughout The Foundling Boy -- which has him reach twenty -- he remains in the process of trying to get his bearings.
       The most obvious comparison is Henry Fielding's foundling-novel, Tom Jones, and Jean similarly makes his way through life -- and, in his case, inter-war France (with a bit of England and Italy thrown in for good measure) -- having a variety of experiences and small adventures in a similar mix of Bildungsroman and picaresque. It's all related by an omniscient but occasionally very chummy narrator who explains what he's doing (and what not), with asides reminding of the French and European political context of the day, and noting when characters' stories are not followed up, or promising they'll crop up again; in some cases he'll look ahead and fill in their fates so readers know what becomes of them, even as they don't figure much in the story proper any longer. He also explains and excuses his approach by maintaining:
But I am not writing a novel. All we are talking about is the life of Jean Arnaud
       One thing that weighs on Jean, to varying degrees, is the mystery of his parentage. He loves the Arnauds, but eventually he wants to get to the bottom of things. The du Courseaus would seem to figure in this in some way: madame for as long time dotes on the boy; Antoinette treats him like a brother (and then, as they mature, as something more); Michel, the du Courseaus' son who is close in age to Jean, is terribly jealous of him ; and the pater familias, fancy-car-obsessed Antoine, even does a regular tour to his mistresses. (There's also the elusive and mysterious eldest daughter, Geneviève, nineteen when Jean is born and almost never home, but, along with her princely husband and his chauffeur, coming to figure in Jean's life once he sets out more on his own.) The answers about Jean's origins are eventually revealed (and revealed, in hindsight, as quite obvious), but this is really only part of the story.
       The Arnauds are salt-of-the-earth, but most of those in Jean's life have a roguish, duplicitous side to them -- albeit often one of great charm, and meaning little harm. Both Antoinette and Chantal turn out to be both coy and fickle -- even as they remain, in their ways, devoted to him. Antoine du Courseau leads his double-life -- but in a way that more or less satisfies everyone -- and there's an amusing overlap of the trail he leaves behind (including yet another child, Toinette) and the one Jean finds himself on. The people Jean befriends include one fantastic rogue, but many others also have a seedier secret side that Jean rarely seems to manage to see through or to. He takes life as it comes -- certainly trying hard, but winding up in these different situations largely by chance and luck.
       Eventually, Jean does take to trying to record the life lessons from along the way, determining, for example:
a) Duplicity: absolutely necessary for a life without dramas. You have to harden your heart. I need to be capable, without blushing to my roots, of sleeping with a woman and then being a jolly decent chap to her lover or her husband. This is essential. Without it society would be impossible.
       Jean has the advantage of appearing to be fundamentally honest (and a bit naïve) -- basically, because he is. But as his rogue-friend explains to him, appearances are everything (and Jean is lucky that his naturally help win people over):
The only thing that counts in the world, believe me, is pure show. Yes, dear Jean, one must appear. Because if one fails to appear, one is scorned by fools.
       Jean is happy enough to go along with his friends elaborate (and luxury-enjoying) schemes, but deep down he's just as happy to be his simple self, which is what makes him such a winning (and popular) character.
       The Foundling Boy occasionally veers off -- following Antoine du Courseau on his road-trips, for example -- and makes quite a few leaps in time, but it's an enjoyably meandering story that's very nicely told. Déon seems to have great fun in relating the story too, allowing for casual advice ("Don't fall in love anymore, sweetheart. It hurts, and it's stupid.") and amusing asides about everything from the sex trade of the day (with very 'English' lessons ...) to some nice color about the art world (from a great collection one of Antoine's mistresses puts together to the bicycle Jean loses to an artist (who sees it as material) to Antoine's dismissive: "artists bore me. They only ever talk about money.").
       A tour of inter-war France (with English, German, and Italian influences playing some roles as well), The Foundling Boy is a story of changing fortunes in tumultuous times that, close-up, barely seem to ruffle anyone or anything. There are some terrible crises here -- fortunes are repeatedly lost (including the du Courseaus losing their estate), a girl's abortion leaves her unable to have children, terrorists are concealed -- and yet life goes on, around Jean, in a calm sort of innocence. It's a difficult balance to strike, but thanks largely to his very well-conceived protagonist Déon does it well, making for an enjoyable read that doesn't try too hard to be anything more than a very entertaining story and yet still hits home sufficiently hard as to the state of the nation and society in those strange decades.
       Good fun, and well worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 July 2014

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The Foundling Boy: Reviews: Michel Déon: Other books by Michel Déon under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Michel Déon lived 1919 to 2016. He was a member of the Académie française.

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© 2014-2016 the complete review

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