The Valentine House
The Valentine house, a wooden chalet overlooking the valley of Hext in the French Alps, is given the Greek name “Arete” (meaning excellence or virtue) by its owner, Sir Anthony Valentine, who built it in the 19th century. Sir Anthony loves the classics, and he also loves the Haute-Savoie region with a near-erotic passion evoked in his private journals. He and his large family travel to Arete to spend their summers, and local farmers greet their British eccentricities with a mix of fascination and resentment.
Their exploits are recounted through the eyes of a French teenager, Mathilde, who becomes a servant at Arete in 1914. A bright peasant girl, her narrative voice is sharp and self-aware. She knows she owes her position to her unattractiveness – Sir Anthony’s wife only hires “uglies,” supposedly to deter his wandering eye – but Mathilde cares “not a jot.” She’s a delight to spend time with, as she observes the Valentines, befriending their granddaughter, Daisy, and accompanying them on hikes. During her duties, she comes upon a peculiar love letter whose impact she doesn’t recognize until six decades later.
The chapters set in 1976, told in the third person from the viewpoint of George, Daisy’s grandson, lack the liveliness of the earlier sections, but Mathilde carries the story there also. Now a stubborn widow in her seventies, she faces a tough decision. American developers seek a foothold in the region, and Mathilde’s son, Luc, takes their side – but Mathilde holds a secret that may deter his plan. The two timelines eventually join.
The family saga aspect is entertaining, if somewhat drawn out, but it’s a treat to spend time in this remote, beautiful area of France. Mathilde is a real cracker, and Francophiles will applaud when she cheekily carves a circumflex (arête means “sharp mountain ridge”) into the Valentine house’s written name.