Tuesday 29 July 2014

The Chateau by William Maxwell

I've had The Chateau on my TBR pile for some time now, but Paris in July gave me the excuse I needed to read it sooner rather than later.

The evocative cover attracted me straight away as it drew me into post WW2 France. I was expecting to be overwhelmed by love and tenderness and joie de vivre.

But this was a quieter book than even I anticipated.

"He studied the man's face, and the face declined to say whether the person it belonged to was honest or dishonest."

Harold and Barbara Rhodes are a gentle, sensitive American couple travelling in France after the war. Conscious that they don't belong, they try everything they can to learn the ropes & fit in. Many of the little drama's in this book are created by their inability to understand French ways. They're astute enough to know something is amiss, but the language and cultural barriers are simply too intangible and complex for them to navigate confidently.

"Though there is only one way to say 'Thank you' in French, there are many ways of being rude, and you don't stop and ask yourself if rudeness is sincere. The rudeness is intentional, and harsh, and straight from the closed heart."

The Chateau is full of little awkward moments & little misunderstandings. The insecurities of traveling in a foreign country are beautifully detailed. But also, the unexpected delights - the walk, the detour, the lunch, the party invite that becomes a memorable highlight.

The French countryside and Paris came alive under Maxwell's light touch.

 "Mont-Saint-Michel....Rising above the salt marshes and the sand flats, it hung, dreamlike, mysterious, ethereal."

The melancholy the comes over the traveller as their time is coming to an end was also beautifully described.

"It was alright before, and now it isn't....Home, I'm talking about....I didn't know about any other place. Or any other kind of people. I didn't have to make comparisons. I will never be intact again."

The story was divided into two distinct parts. The majority of the book followed Harold & Barbara on their journey through France. All their experiences and decisions radiated out from their expectations and involvement with the chateau and the people they met there.

Part two was a final, curious chapter, that I ended up reading twice.

"...answers may clarify but they do not change anything."

Maxwell steps out of the story & provides a question and answer chapter that 'clears up' all the little drama's and misunderstandings.

He uses the chapter to highlight just how contrary and nuanced, mundane and bizarre the behaviours of his characters really are. 

The Chateau was not as mesmerising as I thought it might have be, but it's gentle charm has stayed with me for several weeks now. 

I see more Maxwell on my horizon!

This book also counts for Dreaming in France, Back to the Classics & Books on France Reading Challenge.


  1. Sounds interesting. Nice review.

  2. This sounds lovely. Thanks for reviewing it.

  3. New to me -- that bit about rudeness is so resonant, even if I still haven't quite figured out who was being rude!

  4. This book intrigues me. I just finished my first William Maxwell novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow and would love to read more of his work!

    1. So Long See You Tomorrow has been a staff favourite with my colleagues over the years - they claim it is his best work, so I'm very keen to try it one day.


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