I came across Judith Armstrong by way of a review she wrote, then discovered her as an author in her own right. She’s a former academic who now writes full time (here in Melbourne). Intrigued, I reserved The French Tutor online at the library but was dismayed by its lurid pink cover when I went to collect it. I suspected a soppy romance, but since it was published by Text who have a strong literary fiction list, I brought it home anyway to give it a try.
I need not have worried. It’s Armstrong’s debut novel, but it’s written with an assured hand, and I was hooked from the start by the allusions to Proust. That rose on the book’s front cover ought to be an Albertine, a sweetly scented rambler with lots of nasty sharp thorns. Clambering over the fence in my garden it has prolific double cup-shaped blooms that last only for a glorious six weeks in late Spring and are hostile to time in a vase. In The French Tutor the Albertine is a double metaphor for deception: the rose-lover’s disappointment about the capricious Albertine is like the disappointment Proust’s narrator feels about his girlfriend Albertine – who is also not what she seems.
As a schoolgirl in Paris, Emily King has read A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) in the original. Much given to interpreting her life through the literature she reads (yes, including Mrs Bennett’s ideas about marriage), she is inordinately fond of Proust, and identifies with his defining characteristic: ‘Desire will always propel [him] into undertakings he has already begun to suspect will be disappointing.(p8) Back in Melbourne and working as a university tutor, she is remarkably impulsive and as immature as a schoolgirl, investing her time not in planning a career but rather her outfits – to match her romantic ambitions.
But no, it’s not quite chick-lit; it’s a psychological thriller and a cautionary tale. Armstrong’s tone is wry and amused, yet there’s a sinister undertone. Like Proust, her text is always ‘one step ahead of [her protagonist] foreshadowing the unexpected, if not the sinister that [she] will discover later.’ (p7) The antics of her silly heroine set her up for victimhood, and only her awareness of Proust might protect her from harm.
At work she’s at risk of professional jealousy from ‘anyone not as young, pretty and talented’ and she recalls that
Swann suffered the worst agonies of jealousy when he had the least grounds for his fears; somehow she had become the unwitting third corner of a triangle, a victim of crazy suspicions. But who had taken on the role of Swann? (p40)
She’s indignant when she finds out who it is, but (unlike the reader) she doesn’t recognise that there’s more significance to it.
The love interest, Professor Lewis Lincoln, affects sophistication, but he’s a one-minute-on-the-carpet-wonder who exploits all his relationships for his own ends. Feminists like me would at Emily’s age have upended his weeding buckets on his pristine loafers, but Emily – pathetically keen to have his approval – works feverishly on his garden beds in the Dandenongs – while he and his pal from next door watch! (She cooks the meal and washes up afterwards too.)
Balzac makes an entrance as well, making me wonder fleetingly if The French Tutor might be a bit arcane if you haven’t read some French Lit. (Although I don’t blog it, I belong to Dagny’sYahoo Balzac group working its way through La Comedie Humaine; and I have read Proust.) However Armstrong with a deft touch uses a student tutorial to summarise the story of The Girl with the Golden Eyes and explain its significance, so it’s not necessary to be au fait with the French masters any more than you need to be an expert on flowers which are also symbolic in this most entertaining book.
I’ve searched LitAwards Australia for any mention of this book without success, which surprised me. I would have expected this book to make its way onto a longlist of some sort at the very least because it’s a sophisticated debut novel deserving recognition.
There’s a review (with spoilers) at SMH but I can’t find anything else.
Update: June 2012
Allen and Unwin have bought the electronic rights and now you can buy this book (with a much better cover) as an eBook. See The French Tutor, a new life! on Judith’s blog.
Author: Judith Armstrong
Title: The French Tutor
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2003
Source: Kingston Library