This reading group guide for Amour Provence includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Constance Leisure. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Spanning nearly seventy years, from World War II to the present, Amour Provence
weaves together the lives of the residents of two neighboring villages in the South of France—their loves and losses, secrets and strife, compassion and courage. This richly atmospheric novel is a portrait of an enigmatic place, a region caught between tradition and change, and the compelling, complex people that inhabit it.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Amour Provence
features a varied cast of characters. Which one’s story resonated with you most? Why?
2. Share your thoughts on the novel’s structure. What did you like or dislike about the way the story unfolded? In what ways did the unconventional narrative challenge you as a reader?
3. What long-term repercussions does Didier face because of his youthful affair with Sabine? Why are people so quick to believe Manu’s accusation that Didier took sexual advantage of Sabine? Why do you suppose Sabine would permit her son to make such a claim and not refute it?
4. What do you make of Didier’s encounter on the bridge with the peanut roaster’s woman? What does this scene reveal about Didier?
5. Talk about the instances of bigotry in the novel. Were you surprised at the level of animosity directed toward the North African immigrants, Rachida and Mohammed among them, living and working in the community? Why or why not? What are your thoughts on how Mohammed advises Rachida to handle the cultural differences they encounter?
6. Compare Rachida’s life in Morocco to her life in France, where she has greater freedoms but is subject to racial abuse. In which place would you rather live if you were her?
7. Jeannot is introduced in the first chapter along with Berti and Didier. When he reappears in chapter six, why do you think the author chose to present him through the perspective of his teenage son, Auri, rather than in the third person? Why does Auri wish his father, whom he once admired, was a different sort of man?
8. “My parents say your father is a marginal
. Somebody who lives on the fringe,” Auri’s friend remarks to him about Jeannot. How does the area’s social and economic hierarchy impact its residents? On which characters does it have the greatest effects, positive or negative?
9. Lapin is considered a deranged eccentric by many of the townspeople. Is this reputation deserved? Why do Euphémie, Rachida, and Berti have a different view of Lapin than most everyone else?
10. Why does being confined to a psychiatric hospital remind Euphémie of the war years and trigger long-buried memories? Why does she feel that “perhaps she deserved” to be confined against her will in the rest home? Why does Euphémie turn down Gaston’s initial offer to help get her get out?
11. Why does Berti return to Provence after so many years living abroad? How is her homecoming different from the way she envisioned it would be? Is she content with the decision she made? What does she see differently now about the area, especially in regard to how provincial proprieties affect women?
12. Berti suddenly remembers witnessing her father viciously beat her sister Marguerite, one of the frequent acts of violence he committed against his children. How does this recollection alter Berti’s perception of her family? Why is she unwilling to apply the adage “forgive and forget” to her father and all that he has done?
13. Why is Berti reluctant not only to become romantically involved with Didier but even to be seen with him in public? Why does she later change her mind and seek out Didier? What are her intentions when she goes to his house with a picnic? What do you suppose the future holds for Didier and Berti?
14. Discuss how marriage is portrayed in the novel, from Rachida and Mohammed’s arranged marriage to Clément and Liliane’s volatile partnership to Euphémie’s union, which ended under mysterious circumstances. What is the significance of Liliane’s bequest to her children?
15. What did you know about Provence prior to reading this novel? Has your perception of it changed? If so, how? What is unique about the villages that serve as the story’s setting, and what universalities do they share with other small towns?A Conversation with Constance Leisure Tell us about your connection to Provence. When did you first visit the area?
When my husband and I moved in Paris we took our children down to Provence one autumn during the Toussaint vacation. While there, we spotted an advertisement in a local magazine for a farmhouse for sale near where we were staying. We visited the place with a real estate agent who stood in the garden eating grapes off the vines that were attached to arbors. There was something magical about the place, but we felt it wasn’t sensible to act on a whim. When we returned the following spring, the house was still for sale and the asking price was much lower. Fate had intervened on our side. Now, making grape jelly from those fruited vines has become a ritual that I perform with joy each year.What prompted the idea to set a novel in the region
We had been living in Provence on and off for twenty years when I began to write about the region. The landscape and climate of the Midi—the rolling hills; the high mountains; the river valleys; the vineyards, the hot, dry summers; the smell of springtime herbs and flowers—had always touched me. The character of the people who live there reflects the landscape, sometimes harsh, sometimes sweet and mild. The Provençal are proud, love to talk and enjoy themselves, and above all have an enthusiastic willingness to throw themselves into life whether times are good or bad. As an American living in Provence, that would have been a natural angle for you to take in a novel. Why did you decide not to go that route?
It is the French who interest me. I didn’t have any desire to tell a story about an ex-patriate. I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of the people who grew up in the Midi, who have lived whole lives there. I hoped to give a special insight into how the Provençal think and feel.Had you wanted to write a novel for some time, or was it a spontaneous decision to do so?
While I was living in France, I began several novels that took place in the U.S. But after a while I felt I was losing touch with my home country. I didn’t have my finger on the pulse of American life anymore. When I began writing about France there was an immediate surge of life and I knew I was on the right track.Why did you choose to structure Amour Provence the way that you did? What challenges, if any, did this present while you were writing the book?
I began writing first about individual characters, and then I realized that these people were not only close neighbors, but that their lives were intimately intertwined. Even though some of these characters had wildly different stories and experiences, the terroir
(the special location they live in), as the French call it, held them together—and held the novel together. All of them have a deep attachment to the land they come from, their French patrimony.Which of the many compelling characters in the novel came to you first? Which one was the most interesting to create?
I loved Didier right from the beginning though he changed a lot as I wrote. At first, I thought he was a very discontented person who had a certain penchant for violence, but then I realized he was a much more evolved, and evolving, person than that. I also am extremely fond of Euphémie, who is so much a creature of the natural world. She reminds me of one of those Turgenev characters who romp through forests and don’t really have a home. And I have a special feeling for Aurélien. I had three younger brothers, so teenaged boys have always been something I find interesting to write about.One of the most gripping and poignant parts of the novel is Euphémie’s recollection of events that took place during World War II when she was a teenager. How did you go about researching this aspect of the story?
I have been interested in World War II for a long time, especially the Holocaust. I’d read several nonfiction books about what happened in Provence during the war. And I’d heard a lot of stories from our neighbors. When a friend took me to a memorial erected for several young American pilots who had been shot down in 1944 in a vineyard near my house, I scribbled down their names in my notebook and began to ruminate about how I might eventually incorporate that incident into a story. One of the young fliers was named Harry. The book’s epigraph is a lovely passage by poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Why did you choose this particular verse, and what does it reflect about Amour Provence? What is the amour, or love, referenced in the title?
I felt those verses by Apollinaire reflected a certain longing for life and love that several of the main characters evince. I didn’t realize while I was writing the novel that many of the stories are about love: platonic love; love of a parent for a child; marital love; a sort of distant, watchful, undemanding love like Lapin’s love for Euphémie; and, of course, passionate sexual love.Weather plays a significant role in the story and affects the characters’ lives and livelihoods, including the mistral, a fierce wind that according to Jeannot “could drive anyone crazy.” Have you experienced the intense weather extremes in Provence firsthand?
Oh, yes! Anyone who lives in Provence has been nearly blown over by the mistral when it is at its fiercest—and there’s nothing colder than a mid-winter mistral. Conversely, in the summer the sun can be so bright that it burns right into skin and bone. The locals rise early in order to get chores done, and they make sure to take a siesta during the midday hours to spare themselves that intense heat.You previously worked in book and magazine publishing. What is it like being on the other side of the process now? What was your path to publication like?
It took me several years to write this novel, so that was quite different from fast-paced magazine publishing where we’d be churning out issues every month. But as an editor, I still remember the excitement I would feel when I picked up a manuscript and began reading something that I thought was really good. There’s a magic to that. I hope my readers will feel it for Amour Provence
.What would you most like readers to know about Amour Provence?
I wanted to impart a genuine feeling for what life is really like in Provence, its special atmosphere, the food, the people, the markets, the weather, the attitude toward life, the life of a small village, and sometimes the hard choices people have to make, choices that can sometimes enrich a life even when they are not easily made.Enhance Your Book Club
1. Winemaking is the livelihood of the Falque and Perra families and for many others in Provence as well. Tour a local vineyard to learn about the process, visit a local wineshop, or host your own tasting and uncork several different varieties of French wine.
2. Follow Berti’s lead and have a Provence-themed picnic, serving foods similar to those she selects to share with Didier like pâté, mushroom terrine, jambon fumé
(smoked ham), and strawberry tarts. Or make daube de boeuf
, beef simmered in wine and herbs, a regional specialty that’s cooking on the stove when Berti arrives at her parents’ home. You can find recipes for the savory dish at epicurious.com and food.com.
3. Have each member bring a color image of Provence, such as ones depicting the region’s iconic lavender fields, olive groves, mountains, historic towns, and châteaux. Create a collage of the images to help set the scene for your discussion of Amour Provence
4. Author Constance Leisure lives in Provence part-time. Visit her website (constanceleisure.com) and blog (constanceleisure.wordpress.com) to learn more about her and to follow along on her adventures in the region and beyond.