Provence is here, wish you were beautiful

FOOL'S GOLD By Jane Smith Zoland Books 340 pp., $24

The only time I traveled to Paris, the City of Lights went dark when my plane approached the runway. That was as romantic as it got during the massive strike that shut the city down. I saw the outside of the Louvre. I bought a postcard of the Eiffel Tower. I ate lunch at Le (the) McDonald's.

Jane Smith would understand my three dark days. Her first novel is a witty rejection of every romantic fantasy ever spun about France. Indeed, "Fool's Gold" does for beautiful Provence what "Faulty Towers" did for quaint English hotels.

In the spirit of Evelyn Waugh, this comedy of manners - particularly bad manners - follows an American family from Manhattan to St-Etang, a once-charming town in Provence now reduced to a single truck stop next to a six-lane highway.

Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way. When Vivian Hart loses her job at a for-profit community college in New Jersey, Provence seems like the perfect place to rehash her lectures on eco-feminist art. "As she envisioned it, her book would be intellectual but not academic (here she mentally excused herself from the chore of footnotes), insightful but not definitive (here the burden of biographical research fell away). More important, it would be extremely popular. After all, she would be combining the three big interests of contemporary book buyers: sex, gardening, and the recovery of the primal self."

Her husband is equally optimistic about the power of Provence to inspire his art. "In his soul, hidden beneath his somewhat paunchy exterior, was a biting social critic." But America has not yet recognized the genius of his photography. One gallery owner noted that he "had achieved a style that was both revolting and pointless." In France, "he could diversify his portfolio, find a gallery, get denounced on the floor of the Senate. It would be his breakthrough."

Only their two children are skeptical about this six-month sabbatical. Even when they arrive at their dank, moldy shack with its scorpion-filled swimming pool, Vivian is determined to bathe in local charm. (The previous month, their groundskeeper "had been acquitted of stabbing a tourist caught snipping some lavender from his field.")

Her husband begins a photo series of drunken and increasingly angry street people, resisting "the oppressive hegemony of prettiness."

Left in the careless care of a young punk woman who teaches them obscene phrases, the children immediately set about raising money for their escape back to the safety of New York City. Soon, they discover a trove of ancient gold jewelry in a nearby pond. When these priceless artifacts begin appearing at local flea markets, the art world is ablaze with excitement - and what a mad, mad, mad, mad world it is.

The novel's funniest scene among many is a sophisticated party thrown by the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When Vivian's car breaks down on the way there, angry men carry it off the road. The rest of the evening doesn't go so well.

All this zany wit is a surprise from Smith, who's an accomplished nonfiction writer of distinctly unfunny books. Her history of the polio vaccine won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1990.

Reached at her home outside Chicago, she admitted that comedy was something of a vacation for her. "I had been working for so long on projects in which horrible things happen to people who don't deserve it," she says. "I felt an overwhelming urge to write something in which perfectly delightful things happen to people who don't expect it."

If you can't get away to Provence this summer, don't worry. "Fool's Gold" is the perfect substitute. And it's much funnier.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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