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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles

Katherine Pancol

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To purchase The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles

Title: The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles
Author: Katherine Pancol
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 435 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles - US
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles - UK
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles - Canada
Les Yeux jaunes des crocodiles - Canada
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles - India
Les Yeux jaunes des crocodiles - France
Die gelben Augen der Krokodile - Deutschland
Gli occhi gialli dei coccodrilli - Italia
Los ojos amarillos de los cocodrillos - España
  • French title: Les Yeux jaunes des crocodiles
  • Translated by William Rodarmor and Helen Dickinson
  • The publishers acknowledge -- in tiny print, on the copyright page --: "This edition is an abridgement of the original French-language work."
  • Les Yeux jaunes des crocodiles has been made into a 2014 movie, directed by Cécile Telerman and starring Emmanuelle Béart and Julie Depardieu

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Our Assessment:

C : over-packed with thin stories; progresses extremely messily (presumably exacerbated by cuts made to English translation)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 23/3/2006 Anne Berthod
Publishers Weekly . 9/9/2013 .
The Washington Post . 16/1/2014 Carolyn See

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pancol virevolte d'un personnage à l'autre (...), avec une vivacité si contagieuse que ses 650 pages se lisent d'une traite." - Anne Berthod, L'Express

  • "(A) satisfying Cinderella story. (...) The too-literal translation often doesn’t make sense of French idioms (...). But nevermind the toads; the stars are aligned in Joséphine’s favor, and readers will stay with her until the glass slipper is firmly back on her foot." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Pancol peoples her story with maybe a dozen other characters, several of them teenagers. Without exception, they’re disagreeable (you might call them "French"). (...) There’s a three-part ending here that’s utterly preposterous, but hey, nothing’s perfect ! -- and this is a satisfying read." - Carolyn See, The Washington Post

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 characters at the heart of The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles are two very different sisters, glamorous and beautiful Iris, and her sister, dowdy Joséphine. Iris is four years older, and married to the extremely successful lawyer Philippe; they have a ten-year-old son, Alexandre. Joséphine works in a research institute; her specialty is the Middle Ages. She is married to Antoine, who is completely at sea after losing his job; they have two daughters, fourteen-year-old minx Hortense, and ten-year-old "soft, chubby Zoé".
       Henriette, Iris and Joséphine's mother, remarried after being widowed decades earlier; her husband is the jovial businessman, Marcel. Other significant figures include Joséphine's neighbor, Shirley and her teenage son, Gary, as well as Marcel's secretary, Josiane.
       None of the married couples are faring well in their relationships: Antoine has a mistress, Iris hears rumors about Philippe (which she's more inclined to believe, given how little of a physical relationship is left between them), and Marcel has long been "taken for a ride by Henriette", who is head of his company's board of directors, meaning he (apparently) has to get approval for every major business decision from her. Antoine takes off for Kenya with his mistress to run Croco Park, a Chinese-owned crocodile farm where he rules over 70,000 crocodiles and Marcel begins an affair with Josiane -- hoping to get the one thing he really wants, a baby.
       Hortense constantly moans and insults her mother about the aura of unglamorousness that seems to surround Joséphine, angry that they can't have the luxuries of life, that her mother can't dress better and take better care of her flabby figure. Meanwhile, Iris has and is everything that Joséphine doesn't and isn't. But even Iris is not entirely satisfied with the superficialities wealth allows her, and at a dinner where a publisher is present she claims to be writing a novel. The publisher is interested, and so Iris feels compelled to do something about it. The solution she comes up with is to have Joséphine write it, and Iris take the credit for it. Joséphine will get all the proceeds; Iris will get all the fame and glory.
       The plan works -- A Most Humble Queen becomes a huge bestseller -- and the cash does change Joséphine's circumstances (much to the relief especially of Hortense, though she's still not entirely pleased with how mom handles herself). But this is only a small part of the sprawling story that is The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles -- albeit the most prominent one.
       One problem with many of the other storylines: they involve secrets, which remain unrevealed until ... well, they're revealed. So there's Philippe, planning something very elaborate. There's Marcel -- trying to make a baby, but also planning a big coup. There's Shirley, whose mysterious background turns out to be a pretty big deal that she has good reason to keep secret (even as she doesn't do so particularly well). There's the mysterious man Joséphine falls for -- who seems interested, but sometimes ignores her when she meets him ..... (When they go on a date and she asks whether he's ever been married or ever wanted to have kids he replies: "I'd rather not answer that, Joséphine" -- and she's the one who worries she's offended him by her question (rather than asking, say: What the hell ?).) And, of course, teenage occasional vixen Hortense wants to keep everything from her cellphone to her (shockingly inappropriate) boyfriend to the fancy clothes she gets on the sly secret from her mother. But this is a novel where secrets are kept at every unnecessary turn, from Philippe insisting Joséphine not reveal to Iris that she is doing some translation work for his firm, to a mother who actually goes so far as to not want to tell her children that their father has died.
       Among the few storylines that are presented relatively straightforwardly is Antoine's crocodile farm misadventure. Pancol has a bit of fun with Antoine in this exotic setting, but for the most part this just seems an opportunity to conveniently dispose of Joséphine's husband and let her get on with finding herself and love and happiness (or at least begin on the road to these). There's actually probably enough of Antoine and his Kenyan adventures (as well as his mistresses more successful one) -- and the yellow eyes of the crocodiles of the title certainly are a nicely haunting image -- but where Pancol fails, here and almost everywhere else, is in any sense of these relationships.
       Dialogue-heavy though the novel is, there's little proper communication, and there doesn't seem to be much to many of these relationships. Pancol insists Philippe begins to devote himself to his son, spending a great deal of time with him, but even there we largely have to take her word for it, getting little sense of a true father-son relationship. Joséphine's daughters repeatedly jump into laps -- yes, fourteen-year-old Hortense on (step-)grand-pa's, too ... -- and, indeed, there's lots of jumping: when Antoine visits from Kenya: "The girls took turns jumping on their father". But aside from, for example, Joséphine's friendship with Shirley at times, most of the characters seem to be doing little more than reading out lines and following stage-directions: there's little sense of the actual complexity of human relationships. There's also exceptionally little romance, and even Marcel's affair with Josiane -- the one truly enthusiastic relationship -- is tinged with some cynicism: what seems to get Marcel excited is the possibility of a baby (while Josiane admits to three abortions, unwilling to be: "the Virgin Mary without a Joseph by my side").
       Pancol is incredibly lazy with many of her plot-points too: not one but two of the wives sign papers their husbands give them without properly looking at them, with devastating consequences for their financial situations -- unfathomable, given the strained relationships they already have with these men at these points.
       Many of the figures seem little more than afterthoughts: Joséphine conveniently has an argument with her mother early on, and there's little to be seen of Henriette after that, even as Marcel tries to juggle both her and Josiane. Other characters and relationships are underdeveloped: three-quarters of the way through the novel we learn about Philippe:

For years he'd been obsessed with Iris, wanting only to please and impress her. He wanted to be the best corporate lawyer in Paris, then in France, then a player on the international stage. He began collecting art, buying rare manuscripts, underwriting ballets and operas, starting a foundation -- all to make her proud of him.
       Where has this Philippe -- or any evidence of any of this -- been for the entire novel ? Other than his busy, successful legal career there's not a hint of it.
       If much isn't sufficiently fleshed-out (see also below), the biggest problem with The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles remains how excessively busy it is. There are too many ideas floating around, too many far-fetched plot points straining the story (Hortense befriends ... Mick Jagger ?). From Shirley's surprising background to the episode from her childhood that haunts Joséphine (let's just say: Henriette is only half the loving mother one would wish for) Pancol heaps much too much on. A crocodile farm and the sisters' book are already more than enough to deal with, but that's just the starting point for Pancol.
       Unpleasant too is the focus on the superficial -- and appearances, especially. Expensive designer clothes make the woman is the message most of the characters seem caught up in, and if Joséphine fights it it's only because she doesn't have the money or willpower to go that route. Her girls do shift back and forth -- perhaps a bit too easily -- between what they value and the life-lessons they learn, with even Hortense coming, more or less, to her senses, but a lot of what is said and goes on here is unpleasant and disturbing -- not helped by the fact that Pancol shows no interest in exploring anything in depth. (Keeping up appearances isn't just a girlie thing: once he's taken his mistress Marcel also gets hair implants, and: "once a week he gets a facial at a beauty parlor".)
       (Pancol also seems to have difficulty with age-appropriateness, her depictions of -- and what she does with the -- children veering wildly between the infantile and excessively mature. One anecdote even has Shirley's son, Gary, having seen the film The Night of the Hunter -- a film that would surely traumatize any pre-teen and that still shocks most adults (see Simon Callow's book on it) -- at age eleven. Meanwhile, Hortense (un)comfortably goes from the lap of her grand-father at fourteen to letting herself be taken for rides in the sportscar (and be otherwise pampered) by a man whose only interest is in getting in her pants (that he doesn't is small consolation).)
       The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles is the first of Katherine Pancol's works of fiction to be translated into English -- despite the fact that she has, for at least a decade now, consistently been among the bestselling French authors in France. Penguin claims here that this book alone: "has sold some 2.4 million copies in thirty languages". In her Acknowledgments at the beginning of the book Pancol mentions how pleased she is that the book is finally available in English -- noting pointedly that the book has previously: "been translated into twenty-nine other languages". (Way to go, once again, US/UK publishing industry ..... Thirtieth in line .....)
       Shockingly, however, as the publishers acknowledge -- in tiny print, on the copyright page --: "This edition is an abridgement of the original French-language work." It still weighs in at over four-hundred pages, but apparently much has been chopped out. From the looks of it, 'chopped' is the proper word, too, and it would explain a lot -- especially the gaps in some of the myriad storylines and the woefully underdeveloped characters and relationships.
       (Noteworthy in the Acknowledgments too is Pancol's mention;
     Finally, a special thank-you goes to translator William Rodarmor, who has been bravely wrestling with Crocodiles for more than a year. William did more than translate the book. He immersed himself in the French text, characters, and plot, and then recreated them in English. This is the work of a true writer, for which I am enormously grateful.
       Readers may note, however, that Rodarmor shares equal translation-billing with another translator, Helen Dickinson -- unmentioned by Pancol. It's unclear what exactly happened to the book in its transformation from a fat French novel to a slimmed-down English one, but it does not appear to have been something good.)
       The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles is a somewhat frustrating, very light read, with too many storylines (too many of which are underdeveloped) bouncing around. There are enough quirky surprises to (modestly) amuse, but really, it's kind of a mess -- a fault that might lie largely in the hatchet-job editing of the US/UK edition, rather than the original. Beyond that, the messages and stories in the novel are rather unpleasant too, with a fixation on the superficial and an unwillingness by almost anyone to share much of anything, with so much here steeped in (often silly) secrecy.
       The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles has some elements of a fun read, but in this (English) form there's really almost nothing to recommend about it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 December 2013

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The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles: Reviews: Les Yeux jaunes des crocodiles - the film: Katherine Pancol: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Incredibly popular French author Katherine Pancol was born in 1949.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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