De Potter's Grand Tour
The historical Armand de Potter was novelist Joanna Scott's great-grandfather. This veteran traveler disappeared at sea, and the real-life mystery of his disappearance inspired the literary mystery at the heart of Scott's new novel, DE POTTER'S GRAND TOUR. Much of the book’s substance is gleaned from de Potter's own writings, as well as the letters and journals of his wife, and is peppered with archival photos of the de Potters and their voyages. This, as well as the somewhat formal language and very objective telling of plot and details, at times makes Scott's newest work read more like nonfiction than a novel.
Despite this somewhat distanced storytelling style, Scott's de Potter is a complicated character whose nuanced personality and motivations come across, especially in the novel's surprising conclusion. Born into a poor and somewhat ostracized branch of the de Potter family, Armand de Potter reinvents himself as an aristocrat and academic after he immigrates to the United States in the late 19th century. He also begins to fashion himself as a collector, starting with objects he retrieves from the New York Harbor as a member of the Dredging Club.
"DE POTTER'S GRAND TOUR is an interesting mix of fact and fiction, reporting and storytelling that shows how historical fact can inspire fiction and how fiction can bring history to life."
After his marriage to a much-younger woman, Amy (who also reinvents herself as the much more Continental-sounding Aimee), de Potter's collecting ambitions only grow, as the couple relocates to France and begins leading guided expeditions throughout Europe and to Egypt and beyond. In an effort to receive recognition for his collection (and, by extension, validation for himself), de Potter sends most of his acquired antiquities to a small museum in Philadelphia, which, as he discovers during an undercover visit, fails not only to recognize him with the publication of a catalogue (as he's been promised) but also to acknowledge him even with a simple plaque. Nevertheless, de Potter's collecting habit/compulsion continues, as he secretly signs away his family's fortunes to acquire and then ship his collection around the world.
After de Potter's sudden disappearance, his wife is left behind to uncover many of these financial secrets, as well as the confusing and often contradictory life history of her husband. Even as she attempts to keep herself and their son afloat, she wonders if she ever really knew her beloved spouse or if their seemingly perfect life together was just an illusion.
At times, it can be difficult for readers to feel emotionally invested with the de Potters, given Scott's objective distance and the narrative structure, which switches back and forth (subtly, so that readers need to really pay attention to verb tense, etc.) between de Potter's current location and the couple's past experiences. Periodically, though, Scott breaks through this detachment with a perfectly written scene that is every bit as evocative and emotionally compelling as a reader might expect or want. As such, DE POTTER'S GRAND TOUR is an interesting mix of fact and fiction, reporting and storytelling that shows how historical fact can inspire fiction and how fiction can bring history to life.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 26, 2014