A boy's coming-of-age story runs through this debut novel filled with Cold War history (including a cameo by Willy Brandt) about a scary struggle with a villainous family.
In 1960s France, Roy Harrison's lawyer father, Steve, is serving a stint with the Air Force Reserve in Alsace-Lorraine. They've had a difficult relationship since Roy's mother died a few years ago, and Roy didn't want to go, but his father insisted. A man of discipline and few words, Steve is trying his best to be a good father, though intimacy doesn't come easily to him. He enrolls Roy in a lycée, pitching him headfirst into French culture—not a welcoming atmosphere for an American kid. Barely speaking French is the least of Roy's difficulties. One of his classmates, Robert LePerrier, goes out of his way to bully and abuse him for no discernible reason. Readers will be well into the tale before the back story emerges, detailing the LePerrier family's sordid activities during WWII and their toxic attitudes that have infected their son. Their story (father Jean-Claude's specifically) brings in two real-life figures from the past: the notorious Klaus Barbie, "Butcher of Lyon," and Jean Moulin, hero of the Resistance. Steve confronts the LePerrier patriarch, exposing his dark past and bringing him to trial. Meanwhile, Roy has become fluent in French and has—much to his surprise but not the reader's—come to love his place in France and his French friends. He has grown up; his father is proud of him—and says so. At times, reactions from characters can be a bit over the top, not matching the provocations. Nevertheless, the narrative is nicely bookended by passages set in Paris in 1999, when Roy runs into Robert, his old nemesis. They will never be close, but they understand each other. In the epilogue—later that weekend—Dr. Harrison flies home to the States and to his wife and his kids and his good life. An impressive debut novel; hopefully, there's more.