The Devil’s Reward, by Emmanuelle de Villepin

35782407Christiane’s family might never have managed to reconnect if it weren’t for Rudolf Steiner and an affair. When The Devil’s Reward, by Emmanuelle de Villepin and translated by C. Jon Delogu, opens, Christiane extends an invitation to her daughter and granddaughter to come and stay with her in Paris. After her daughter, Catherine, and granddaughter, Luna, Christiane starts to spin stories about her own childhood, their extended family—all of which provides plenty of opportunities to meditate on maternal-child relationships, the ethics of cheating, and the possibility of reconciliation.

The first evening that the women gather is more than a little awkward. Christiane is over the moon at having her family around her again. She grew up with family around her and has been lonely since her husband died. But Catherine is heartbroken about her husband’s cheating and does not share Christiane’s more liberal attitudes to cheating. If Luna hadn’t been working on a thesis about philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the family reunion might have gone completely off the rails. Partway through that first evening, Luna tells her grandmother what she’s writing about and Christiane reveals that one of her aunts was one of Steiner’s followers.

Rudolf Steiner (Image via Wikicommons, edited by me)

There isn’t a lot of plot in The Devil’s Reward. Instead, there are long stories about Christiane’s father and mother, Aunt Bette (the Steiner follower), and the twilight years of the Picardy aristocracy. Christiane portrays herself as a worldly woman, open to the fact that married people might stray and a huge advocate of enjoying the little pleasures of life. Catherine is much more conventional. She is frequently irritated with her mother because Christiane isn’t as sympathetic as Catherine wants. Luna is their point of connection, but she’s ready to go off and live her own life. By the end of the book, Christiane and Catherine are forced to either make peace or agree to probably never speak again.

As a slow collection of stories, essentially, about mothers and daughters, The Devil’s Reward has a lot to say about how family members struggle with each other when they are such different people. Some of them follow strange philosophies, while others are very pious Catholics, and some are hedonists. Throughout the generations, the hedonists keep coming into conflict with the believers and traditionalists. They’re all stubborn and finding common ground often seems impossible. Characters stay true to themselves, instead of swerving to create a glowing happy ending. The reconciliations that do happen are hard won. As such, I found this book to be a much more honest and realistic portrayal of generational conflict.

A note about the translation: One of the things that bothered me most about this novel was the occasionally clumsy translation. There were phrases that I thought were literally translated from the French when they ought to have been rendered in more natural sounding English. The translation was mostly fine, but the overly literal translations were jarring.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 1 May 2018.

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