on June 22nd 2005
Genres: Europe, Fiction
Published by Miramax Books
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
“Freshly arrived from a beautiful Tunisian island to work for the exacting Countess Poulais du Roc, Fatima finds herself in a city where even the most mundane tasks like walking the dog and buying the groceries prove baffling. But her natural compassion ensures her survival, and-unexpectedly-brings good fortune to those around her.”
Fatima’s younger sister, Rachida, moved from the Tunisian island of Djerba to Paris to make a better life for herself. She was working as a maid for the Countess when she was killed in an accident. The Countess remembers that Rachida had a sister and imperiously sends for her to take her sister’s place. She considers this a mission of charity but doesn’t think about the impact on Fatima’s life. That is the major character flaw of the Countess. She is so self-centered that she doesn’t think about the needs of anyone other than herself and her dog, Emma. She moves through other people’s lives like a battering ram oblivious to the damage that she is causing. She takes credit for good deeds that others have done and never gets called out on her casual racism.
She is shocked to find out that Fatima is nothing like her sister. Fatima went to work in a resort as a cleaner as a child. This income allowed Rachida to go to school. Fatima is illiterate. She is not as worldly as Rachida. Life in France is overwhelming to her.
Fatima enlists the help of others in her building to help her learn the skills that she needs to survive in France. She has a warmth that draws others to her and makes them want to help her. The reader sees this slice of Paris through the eyes of a North African immigrant who isn’t always welcomed.
The ending is mostly an immigrant fairy tale. Everything works out wonderfully and not that realistically. This book tries to make a light and fun tale out of some serious subjects – immigration, class inequality, the death of a family member – so even as you root for the characters it feels jarring like no one is taking this as seriously as is merited.
I have really mixed feelings about this one. While reading it, I wanted to know what was going to happen in the story but wasn’t sure about the tone. Was the racist and classist representation of the Countess meant to point out the bad behavior of French people? With everyone around her not commenting on it I wasn’t sure if it was that or if the book was somehow trying to condone it – “Oh, that’s just how rich old ladies are.” All the Africans are wonderful, amazing people who improve the lives of everyone they interact with. There is no nuance. It made me thing of the magical negro trope.