Fiction – paperback; Gallic Books; 192 pages; 2015. Translated from the French by Anna Aitken. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Caroline Vermalle’s George’s Grand Tour is the latest in a burgeoning new genre of feel-good novels, such as Brooke Davis’s Lost & Found and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, which are bright, happy and poignant reads.
Admittedly, I tend to like my fiction on the darker side, but every now and then it’s refreshing to read something that practically brims with sunshine and good vibes. I read this when I was feeling slightly miserable for myself (thanks to a pulled calf muscle) and by the final page (yes, I read it in one go while lying on my bed with my leg elevated) I felt immensely cheered. It also made me want to book a holiday to France because Vermalle writes about it so evocatively, especially the fishing ports dotted along the Breton coast.
I should, however, point out that I’m going to keep this review short and sweet — a bit like the book, really — because the real joy in reading this novel is simply going along for the ride knowing as little about it as possible.
The ride, as such, is actually a road trip undertaken by George, an octogenarian, who decides to set off on a great adventure following the route of the Tour de France — in a car, not a bike — taking in 21 stages, 49 villages and covering 3,500km over two months. He takes his best friend and neighbour Charles with him, but there’s a lot of subterfuge to his plan. First, he has to wait until his over-protective daughter is away, and then he has to figure out how to divert his landline telephone to his mobile so that when his granddaughter calls from London (to check on him) she won’t know he’s out on the road.
There’s a delightfully mischievous tone that runs throughout the narrative. There’s a touch of romance, much sightseeing, beautiful scenery, the occasional satnav diversion, a lot of drinking — and the odd hangover.
George discovers that he’s not too old to learn new things: his mastery of text messaging allows him to reconnect properly with his granddaughter Adèle via mobile phone and their exchanges, dotted through the narrative, are an absolute delight:
We r in L’Auberlac’h, Fnstr, nice port w blu boats.
(We are in L’Auberlac’h, Finistère, nice port with blue boats.)
And while the novel is framed around a road trip there’s much more to it than a long journey in a Renault Scenic: it’s an exploration of the gap between generations and our prejudices against both the young and the elderly, and shows how you are never too old to grab life by the horns and try new things. I adored it.