I am in two minds about Our Lady of the Dunes by Jeannette de Beauvoir. Part of me really enjoyed it, part of me was left disappointed.
The plot outline holds so much promise: Jessica, a young woman in 1930s America, is sent with her German housekeeper Anna, to the backshores of Cape Cod by her parents. They wish to protect Anna against further threats and harassment because of her nationality at a time of war. The backshore beach huts are a place of solitude and eccentric souls, who will leave Anna in alone. Whilst there, Jessica meets Sophie and a first true love blossoms. However, war is never far away and the presence of German U boats in the area, attempting to prevent supplies reaching British waters, present life changing challenges for all three women.
So here is what I loved about the book:
The sense of coming of age, of feeling truly alive and experiencing everything so deeply, comes across wonderfully. De Beauvoir captures that essence and certainly made me reminisce of when I was Jessica’s age, looking at the world with a fresh perspective. I also thought Jessica’s vulnerability, naivety and genuine hope for the future, were all beautifully told.
The descriptions of the sea and the dunes. I have an affinity with the sea and this book desperately made me want to pack up and live in a dilapidated cabin on the coast.
The focus on the outsiders of society at the time; be it because of nationality, class, mental health, old age or sexual orientation. I love a book that explores what it is to be an outsider.
Did I mention the sea and the dunes?!
An interesting subplot: Helen, an older lady in declining health, who had been a central part of the artist and writer community back in the 1910s and 1920s.
The interspersed snippets of socio political commentary.
The portrayal of the German officer later on in the story. So often books rely on stereotypes but this officer is a human being, with hopes and fears and regrets and so much pain. I love that Jessica cannot see him as an abstract enemy.
And here is why I was left disappointed:
There were a few too many tangents, Jessica would often ramble on in her head, sometimes rather randomly, and this made the story flow feel disjointed at points.
There was a lot more telling than showing.
I found the repetition of certain descriptions and imagery frustrating.
I also found it frustrating that the above mentioned Helen subplot fizzled out– I wanted to know so much more.
And last of all, the German officer’s English. At times, it read as if Yoda was speaking, I kid you not! Anna’s use of random German words as she spoke, also seemed a little false, as if we had to keep being reminded that she was German.
All in all, I give Our Lady of the Dunes 3 stars: certainly a good read but in my opinion, sadly not a great one.