Il n'y a qu'un bonheur dans la vie, c'est d'aimer et d'être aimé. (There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.)
Paris is for lovers. In fact, so is most of France. People share romance freely; the scents, tastes and scenery are seductive, and French people are not embarrassed to show affection in public. This novel, The People in the Photo, translated from the French, is indeed romantic, and mysterious. It is an elegant, tightly crafted first novel
in which love is not restricted to romantic, sensuous love. Love comes in many forms: love of discovery; love of stories; love of one’s work; love of one’s cat; love of friends and family.
- (novelist George Sand)
The People in the Photo is an epistolary novel, one told primarily in letters and in modern-day email and texts. These are becoming popular once again--consider the 2008 novel by John Berger, From A to X, letters between a prisoner and his wife on the outside. Perhaps their authors regret the demise of handwritten letters--and, in this case, old snapshots, rare except to collectors in this rapidly changing technological age.
In the novel, Hélène, a museum curator in Paris, uncovers and restudies an old photo of three figures, including her mother, taken in 1971. Her mother died when she was only three or four, her father three years before the action of the book takes place. Hélène has been mothered by her father’s second wife, Sylvia, since Hélène was nine. Now in the end stages of Alzheimer’s, Sylvia cannot help identify the subjects of the photograph. Hélène posts a newspaper advertisement looking for those who might help her identify a man in the photo and provide more information about her mother, as she remembers little about the woman who gave birth to her.
The ad initiates a fairly regular correspondence between Stephane, a Swiss scientist living in England who may have information, and Hélène. One of her first letters to Stephane states, “I have spent my whole life surrounded by so much silence, trying to tell myself it didn’t matter, but as time goes on the unanswered questions gnaw away at me.” The two eventually meet and continue their intense search on foot as well as through the airways. Serendipitously, their two families had connections.
Photos have always gone well with words; the premise of this book is appealing. Both evocative mediums, they can shed light on people and events long-forgotten or emotionally buried. This novel is sweet and a fairly quick read as some letters are brief. The ending of the book may be a tad obvious for some readers, but the conclusion comes about gradually and thus seems eminently possible.