The Fourth Bear
Kate Muir
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Buy *Left Bank* by Kate Muir online

Left Bank
Kate Muir
352 pages
June 2007
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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When handsome Frenchman Olivier Marlin and his beautiful Texan-born actress wife, Madison, lose their daughter Sabine in an American-style fun park called PlayWorld Paris, the event signifies the beginning of the end for their brittle marriage.

Over the past few years, Oliver and Madison have been trying to keeping up appearances, intent on living a life of self-absorption and conceit - the "it" couple of Paris. Oliver is one of France's leading philosophy writers; his latest book is the controversial Chechnya - Beyond Philosophy.

A self-confessed gastronomist, Oliver's days are filled food - and with women. Madison endures his dalliances, perhaps because she is intent to keep up a type of youthful hubris, be seen as a true Parisienne, and escape being tarred as a "Texan model-turned-actress."

Over the years, they have developed a strained understanding and a reciprocated arrangement. Madison even engages in a platonic extramarital affair with her friend Paul, more out of necessity than desire, and there's nothing Olivier enjoys more than a perfect meal other than the pursuit of extramarital love.

The affairs real for him and fictional for her balance their relationship and temper their commitment to Sabine. But the arrival at the rue du Bac of Anna Ayer, a hip English nanny, threatens the delicate arrangement. Anna has lived in Paris for four years and already knows the reputation of Olivier and Madison; he is the unavoidable fodder for late-night cultural television shows, and she most notorious for starring in sub-pornographic art-house films.

Sabine takes an instant liking to Anna, who is worldly and groovy enough to realize that she can extend to this child the security and emotional stability she needs. Anna also offers Oliver a youthful earthiness that Madison lacks, while Oliver, the older handsome heroic philosopher, offers Anna a type of father figure.

Their affair, however, threatens to come undone by the nosey doings of the Catholic concierge, Madame Canovas; she's all too quick to spy on the couple, especially when she has Sabine's best interests at heart. She's doesn't hesitate to pass judgment, discerning pretty quickly that there is certainly something rotten in the rue du Bac, chiefly with Olivier, and his ridiculous existentialist behavior.

Author Kate Muir casts a discerning eye on Paris and its denizens; Oliver, in particular is portrayed as a well-bred chauvinist, too snobbish to believe in openness and full disclosure of his affairs. Madison's carefully coiffed world is turned upside down when she realizes that she has been somehow acting her life, trying to escape her dusty Texan roots by becoming a perfect French beauty. And Anna can no longer fall back on the perfect fantasy father when everything goes wrong in her life.

Obviously these are not bad people. Rather, they simply disregard the feelings of others while trying to meet the daily demands of busy lives. Muir's crisp, lively and entertaining prose perfectly captures the world of Parisian Left-Bank artists, filmmakers, and left-wing intellectuals, and she beautifully defines Olivier and Madison's mannered world, where appearances mean more than loyalty and good, solid, devoted parenting.

Will Madison be able to escape the clutches of the unfaithful bourgeois Olivier and find real love and happiness on her own terms? Certainly marrying a celebrated French intellectual and performing as part of a public couple was a big misjudgment. Luckily though, Sabine is the one person in her life, other than herself whom she is able to love categorically.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2006

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