In THE SUITORS, fans of "Downton Abbey" will find a familiar topic: an impressive modern estate held by a super-elite French bourgeoisie family who live an old-world life (upheld, of course, by a large collection of “servants” whose sole purpose is to entertain “guests of great importance”). This satire focuses on a super-elite class with unique social etiquette, manners and charms, all centered on having “old money,” the narrator being a descendent of the French aristocracy. The family estate about which author Cécile David-Weill writes is L’Agapanthe, located in the Cote d’Azur. The social edicts she presents are initially familiar, but then the book goes on to reveal the lesser-known realities for these elite families with expensive historical properties.
Overall the novel comes off as a lively “comedy of manners” --- quaint, traditional, occasionally serious and intrusive, but in the end, highly socially critical. Laure, the narrator, describes her years at L’Agapanthe as formal and stuffy, living with her parents and sister, Marie, while they entertained strangers almost continually. Somehow L’Agapanthe was a place they all seemed to love and simultaneously resent for what it was.
"THE SUITORS is an eccentric, humorous novel that many readers should enjoy. I loved reading about all the social edicts and rigid etiquette of the French elite."
As an aristocrat, Laure describes experiencing a sense of real belonging to the land and the preserved beauty of her home, yet at the same time, realizing her family’s traditions force them into upholding rigid ideologies and expectations of everyone. These include absolute obedience to perfection of appearance, manners and behavior, and resulted frequently in a tendency for them all to form strict moral and social judgments, directed most often at their house guests. The harsh opinions voiced by Laure illustrate David-Weill's point in writing the book. To the reader, these judgments might seem based upon very slight breaches of etiquette, but through her narrator, the author reveals these kinds of things are interpreted by French aristocrats as major blunders and highly rude behavior. Americans reportedly take the cake.
Large sections of the plot focus on these little delicate social nuances surrounding stuffy, formal events --- weekends and dinners planned down to the slightest, most exquisite detail, having gathered guests through formal invitation to strangers around the world and bringing in movie stars, artists, scientists, world-class businessmen, socialite wannabes, and others of fame (most of whom are unfamiliar to me, but with huge names also appearing on the roster). Ordinary folks seem below the notice of a place like L’Agapanthe, which appears to have its own life. “New money” is despised there. The many servants of the house are respected but ignored pointedly; this approach is something Laure defends and explains directly and thoroughly. Although fascinating, it is certainly a point of view that lacks modern perspective (which really seems to be the point).
Laure formed these superficial acquaintance-type relationships through her personal devotion toward celebrating the traditions of the elite upper class. She describes an odd dedication toward preserving her home and philosophies that they all knew were bound to die out eventually; they were determined to fight it. Much of her personal insights and etiquette seem directed at preventing any evolution. But L’Agapanthe’s sole function had become to entertain other elites; hardly the best use for such a place in the modern world.
Laure describes the complexity of her feelings for her home and legacy of her life there. Once her parents declare their intentions to put the estate on the market (for reasons both financial and practical), she and her sister attempt to save the day by going “husband hunting” --- which is where the book gets really interesting, as several romances play out here. The line of reasoning of these sisters is refreshingly honest and instinctive: They are so constantly surrounded by the ultra-rich and famous, why not play the “oldest game in history” and capitalize on their own value and virtues as women, in order to save their home? This is a great twist.
Though the life and thoughts of the narrator may come off as foreign and stuffy to some, THE SUITORS is an eccentric, humorous novel that many readers should enjoy. I loved reading about all the social edicts and rigid etiquette of the French elite. Though life at L’Agapanthe is certainly difficult to relate to, this story makes for an interesting reading experience and a great escape to do some “people watching.”
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on March 22, 2013