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Sister Mary Murderous

Favorite genres are traditional mystery, police procedurals, espionage, Eurocrime, literary fiction and nonfiction history, especially WW2 and Cold War.  I write about crime fiction at Read Me Deadly (www.readmedeadly.com)

A very French Cinderella story

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles - Katherine Pancol, William Rodarmor, Helen Dickinson

Katherine Pancol's "Joséphine" trilogy sold like Paris street-vendor crèpes in France, and now the first of the three books has been translated into English. The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles introduces us to ugly duckling Joséphine Cortès, who has always been treated dismissively by her snobbish and stylish mother, Henriette, and by her sister, chic society wife, Iris.

Joséphine is a poorly-paid history researcher and mother to teenage Hortense, who is a mercenary Iris-in-training, and sweet little Zoé. When Joséphine's husband, Antoine, leaves her to run off with his mistress to an African crocodile farm, Joséphine is in dire straits. What to do to keep her family fed, housed and clothed?

The answer comes out of left field. Iris, a sharp-elbowed competitor among Parisian ladies who lunch, has been feeling like the spotlight isn't highlighting her enough, so she announces to her set that she's writing a historical novel. The spotlight swivels to her, alright, but it's all little too hot with expectation when a publisher acquaintance expresses keen interest. The solution is for Joséphine to use her 12th-century historical knowledge to write the novel, which will be credited to Iris, and Iris will slip the proceeds to Joséphine.

It's a good plan until the novel becomes a runaway success and word of the book's real provenance starts to leak out. This description makes it sound like a straightforward story, but there is a huge cast of supporting characters who provide their own subplots, like Joséphine's stepfather Marcel, who runs a successful home goods business and takes refuge from his ice queen wife, Henriette, with his voluptuous and warm-hearted secretary; Joséphine's neighbor and friend Shirley, who has a mysterious past in England; Hortense and her cold-blooded tactics intended to ensnare men and get ahead; Antoine and Mylène's adventures on the crocodile farm; and nearly a dozen other characters. Even Joséphine's novel's heroine, Florine, is a character in this book--and one with a life that would put any soap opera to shame.

When I picked up this book, I was a little nervous about Joséphine's character, because downtrodden characters in books are often so passive that I want to shake them and tell them to grow a backbone. But Joséphine isn't like that. She does stands up for herself, at least verbally, and has some very choice words for both Antoine and her mother. I cheered for her all through the book, and looked forward to seeing the meanies get their comeuppance.

This is a fast-paced, funny and poignant story and, as with the best stories, I couldn't wait to find out what happens next. There were a couple of weak points, like young contemporary children being interested in Marlon Brando and John Lennon, and one subplot that strains credulity, but these were easy to forgive.

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles is perfect for a movie. The Cinderella-ish plot is tailor-made for the screen. Of course, if Hollywood gets to it, Joséphine will be played by somebody like Julia Ormond and you'll only know she's an ugly duckling because she won't be wearing eyeliner or Hermès scarves. But I can live with that.

I wonder how long it will take before we see English translations of the other two books in the trilogy? The second is called La Valse Lente des Tortues (The Slow Waltz of Turtles) and involves a serial killer striking Joséphine's neighborhood, while the third, Les Écureuils de Central Park Sont Tristes le Lundi (Central Park's Squirrels Are Sad on Mondays), has Joséphine battling writer's block until she finds a 1960s diary about a young man who is mesmerized by Cary Grant when Grant is in Paris filming Charade with Audrey Hepburn. I'll look forward to reading these, which have also been huge bestsellers in France.