The sad occasion of Marcel Péricourt’s funeral turns profoundly tragic when his grandson falls from a second-floor window. The child’s injuries are life-changing, and his mother, Madeleine Péricourt – the heiress of her late father’s financial empire – is beside herself with grief. With no head for business and even less inclination to learn, Madeleine relies on Gustave Joubert, her father’s trustworthy right-hand man. However, Madeleine previously called off her wedding to Joubert and, while he continues to play the loyal adviser, he decides she must pay a heavy price for humiliating him. Working in cahoots with a disgruntled uncle, who failed to receive an expected inheritance from his brother, and Léonce, Madeleine’s thieving female companion, Joubert’s schemes soon reduce Madeleine to ruin.
When she understands the extent of the treachery that she and her child have suffered, Madeleine instinctively knows the value of the Count of Monte Cristo’s motto: ‘All Human Wisdom is contained in these two words – wait and hope’. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and when she takes it, Madeleine’s revenge is icy. She assembles her own band of musketeers (to borrow once more from Dumas). They are an unlikely bunch, comprising an ex-communist fixer, a Polish nurse who doesn’t speak a word of French, a petty criminal with a talent for sabotage, an exiled German Jewish chemist and a very expensive forger.
All Human Wisdom is the second in Lemaître’s between-the-wars trilogy, though it can be read as a standalone. It is a colourful caper set against the backdrop of historic events: the stock market crash of 1929, the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and the resulting political tensions. Completing the extraordinary cast above, there’s the Spanish opera singer with a flair for theatrics and socking it to the Nazis, and Joubert’s two daughters, reminiscent of the ugly sisters. There’s also poor, poor Alphonse – a young man marked to become the husband of one or the other (they can’t decide which). What he must endure before he effects a lucky escape!
Madeleine’s targets do not, however, escape their comeuppance, and that is very satisfying. That they are corrupt figures in the fields of banking, manufacturing, politics and journalism suggests an extensive rot in the French society of the 1930s. Cynics will have a field day drawing contemporary parallels – with plots involving insider trading, industrial sabotage, corporate tax dodging and fake news. While these are mostly derived from real scandals of the time, Lemaître admits to ‘deviations from actual history’. Best, therefore, to take historical accuracy with a pinch of salt, savour the drama, suspend your disbelief where necessary and revel in a thoroughly engaging and exuberant French affair.
Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal
ALL HUMAN WISDOM
by Pierre Lemaître
translated by Frank Wynne
published by MacLehose Press (2021)
June 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Lizzy Siddal is a British bibliophile and book blogger. She runs German Literature Month every November, now in its tenth year, on her blog Lizzy’s Literary Life.
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