Retreat to France is no vacation

THE PLEASING HOUR By Lily King Atlantic Monthly Press 237 pp., $24

Any spoken language has unfamiliar words, but when the language is spoken from the heart, little is misunderstood.

Lily King's debut novel, "The Pleasing Hour," is about Rosie, a teen-aged American au pair in France. Empty at heart and yearning for a family of her own after bearing a child for her sister, the pudgy Rosie swirls over an Atlantic rainbow and lands in a new world where she works for the Tivot family on their Parisian houseboat.

While the children welcome her eagerly, she immediately chills in the shadow of Nicole, their remote but urbane mother. From the outset, Rosie is made more vulnerable by her halting grasp of French.

"I had the feeling, from the moment Nicole glanced up and saw me, that I had either arrived too late or too early in the afternoon," she writes. "There was something distinctly inconvenient about me, which turned out to be a feeling that persisted for several months."

But the drama isn't confined to Rosie's hollow past, nor her inability to find a common ground with Nicole. Marc, Nicole's husband and the father of the children Rosie quickly grows to love, is much quicker to bond with the young au pair. And when the youngest child witnesses papa and the nanny in a compromising situation, the suddenly abashed Rosie moves to the south of France to care for Nicole's elderly aunt Lucie, the keeper of the family secrets.

Not surprisingly, the Cambridge author once lived in Paris where she was a cook for a family of five. It shows in the fascinating detail of her writing. The winner of the Raymond Carver Prize for Fiction, King braids strands of two worlds and two times to create an insightful story about love and loss, family and dislocation. Moreover, King treats us to an idyllic portrait of the French countryside, where the diverse threads of her story begin to weave together.

In the process, King brings alive a palette of colorful and robust characters who might have been collected from an afternoon at a sidewalk cafe in Provence. Their faces are sweetly familiar, from Guillaume - the Tivots' son who dreams of becoming a priest but questions the existence of God after witnessing a bullfight - to Henri Peyraud, a close friend to aunt Lucie for more than 70 years.

If there's a fault in the tale, it is Rosie's seemingly dispassionate voice. Gyrating in a maelstrom of emotions and new sensual experiences, confronting new and old ghosts, Rosie is as austere in her storytelling as we imagine Nicole to be in her mothering. Of course, Rosie comes to understand that Nicole and she are not so different after all, but they are not, in any sense, the same.

Still, this is a rich first novel about families lost and found from a promising writer with an ear for the kind of language that touches deeply.

*Ron Franscell is the author of "Angel Fire" and the upcoming mystery, "The Deadline."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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