Consolation is the story of Charles, a middle aged architect living in Paris who faces a mid-life crisis upon hearing of the death of a beloved friend. He receives an anonymous note in the mail one evening stating "Anouk is dead" and recognises the handwriting of that of his estranged childhood friend Alexis, Anouk's son. Throughout his childhood, adolescence and adulthood, Charles has forever been in love with Anouk and subsequently her death provides the catalyst for his inevitable downfall. As Charles spirals into depression, he travels into the countryside in search of answers from Alexis and in the process discovers the luminous Kate, who may just provide his salvation.
This book is an absolute delight to read. It is very different in style to Hunting and Gathering (Gavalda's beautiful 2006 novel) but has the same core of lost and hurting characters that give Gavalda's stories colour and triumph. Despite Charles being the protagonist of this glorious novel, this is really a story about women, particularly those who have shaped him. This story is littered with rounded, real, beautiful, beautiful characters however it is the female characters in this book that are truly divine. Anouk is the motivating force here, and despite the fact that she is only living in flashback, the gradual revelation of her story is heartbreaking and engrossing. Then there is Kate, a young woman living in an old isolated farmhouse raising 5 children, none of whom are her own. She captures Charles's heart and provides that little bit of magic that sets his life straight.
I just loved this book. At first I found it difficult to read as several characters were introduced at once and my brain couldn't remember who was who. However this quickly resolved as I came to know the characters better. Virginia Woolf once said "For a great writer, she was the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness," about Jane Austen and I always think of that when I read a great book. Gavalda is the best kind of writer, where the story just comes to life in your mind and you feel and understand everything that is happening, without being wordy and over descriptive. She manages to write stories about loss, love and hope without being over indulgent or soppy.
This book had the most impact on me after I had finished it. While I was reading it, the plot seemed to head in directions I didn't want it to go, and there was unexpected tragedy which carried the story in a darker direction than Hunting and Gathering (really, you can't compare the two). Upon reflection now, I think this story was just right. It had a magical 'midsummer nights dream' feel to it (for me at least), perhaps it was the 'French' thing... everything French seems so much more romantic than real life!
There is so much everyday stuff to love about this book, Charles's love of music which he shares with his teenage stepdaughter; life in Paris; Kate's countryside living with her children and her animals; Anouk's hard working life as a nurse; and all of this seems idyllic, but realistic, it is almost as though you want to have the same struggle as Charles, just to be living the rest of his life.
If you liked Anna Gavalda's previous novel, Hunting and Gathering, or if you like French literature in general, this book is for you. Some other French authors to check out are Muriel Barbery and Joanne Harris (who is actually English/French).