Book review: This is Life

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AUTUMN in Paris. A beautiful but quirky heroine. Thwarted love with a handsome artist. Even more beautiful but flawed best female friend.

This Is Life

Dan Rhodes

Canongate, £12.99

And a totally cute baby standing in for puppies/kittens – it’s almost as if Dan Rhodes had cynically sat down with a checklist of all things designed to appeal to the commercial women’s fiction market. And then thought, but I don’t do cynical. So how exactly do I shake this up?

This may be the book that makes Rhodes a massive mainstream hit. Though he has won several awards, he has yet to become a household name in the manner of Nick Hornby, say. His style has been too surreal, too left-field for mainstream fiction, his view of the world too unpredictable. This time, though, he’s toned down the surreal to make it slightly cuddlier, more accessible. A disappointing move?

It could have been. But this is a genuinely funny and moving novel. A young French woman, Aurelie Renard, lobs a small stone through the Paris streets to see where it lands, and to her horror it strikes a baby in the face.

The fact that she threw it as part of a new art project is beside the point; or rather, it becomes the point, as the child’s mother insists she makes up for her attack by looking after the baby for a week. But what mother would give up her child, never mind to a woman who’s just bruised its face? You’ll struggle to find an absurd scenario like this in chick-lit, or Hornby, but Rhodes’ fans know what to expect, and it works beautifully. Aurelie calls on her best friend, the beautiful but permanently dissatisfied Sylvie, to help her, but neither woman is really much use when it comes to babysitting.

The baby is something of a McGuffin. This isn’t about a couple of distracted young women trying to cope with sudden motherhood (although if this is ever optioned as a film, that’s exactly what it’ll become).

It’s really about the path of true love, and how love transforms, a less absurd but still time-honoured staple of women’s romance. Aurelie has been let down after a one-night stand with a pretentious art student, whilst Sylvie has fallen in love with the picture of the son of a Japanese couple she’s showing round the city.

Both women are essentially unhappy and slightly adrift. Aurelie has a father but wants to prove to him that she can cope alone in the capital and make a success of her life, whilst Sylvie is an orphan who has a different job every day, the better to expand her range of potential husband options.

Whilst out with baby Herbert one day, though, Aurelie is accosted by one of many old ladies keen to befriend the baby, and is rescued from a particularly enthusiastic grandmother by a handsome young stranger.

This handsome young stranger, Leandre Martin, has a tragic past, though – a childhood game with his best friend Dominique Gravoir, went wrong, and now Dominique has been on a life support system ever since. But Rhodes can’t leave it alone – on their first date, Leandre holds his breath (in an echo of the childhood game that went wrong) and Aurelie, convinced he’s a weirdo, makes a swift departure. What’s that about the course of true love?

Meanwhile, an experimental artist called Le Machine has arrived back in his hometown after a wildly successful world tour. His show, Life, involves him standing naked on stage and expelling all his bodily fluids into various containers. An arts correspondent for a major Parisian newspaper, the hilariously ambitious Jean-Didier Delacroix, is out to expose him for the charlatan he believes he is. This is where Rhodes swerves from what in any other writer would have been a predictable cynicism about modern art, and into a rather touching proposition about art saving even the most vacant souls.

Rhodes’ black humour may have been diluted with a little white to tone it down, but it’s still a force and still shows his expert touch when it comes to switching registers.

His novel is not a mockery of the chick-lit genre, even if it is aware of the narrative conventions of the genre and takes gentle pot-shots every now and then. It simply takes a popular formula and gives it a very welcome edge. Superb. «