book review: the balcony

The Balcony by Jane Delury
Little, Brown and Company, 256 pp.
Published March 27, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free physical ARC of this book as a giveaway prize from Little, Brown and Company hosted on Goodreads.

A century-spanning portrait of the inhabitants of a French village, revealing the deception, despair, love, and longing beneath the calm surface of ordinary lives.

What if our homes could tell the stories of others who lived there before us? Set in a small village near Paris, The Balcony follows the inhabitants of a single estate-including a manor and a servants' cottage-over the course of several generations, from the Belle Époque to the present day, introducing us to a fascinating cast of characters. A young American au pair develops a crush on her brilliant employer. An ex-courtesan shocks the servants, a Jewish couple in hiding from the Gestapo attract the curiosity of the neighbors, and a housewife begins an affair while renovating her downstairs. Rich and poor, young and old, powerful and persecuted, all of these people are seeking something: meaning, love, a new beginning, or merely survival.

Throughout, cross-generational connections and troubled legacies haunt the same spaces, so that the rose garden, the forest pond, and the balcony off the manor's third floor bedroom become silent witnesses to a century of human drama.

Finding the remarkable concealed within ordinary lives requires a particular and rare talent, which debut novelist Delury happily possesses. She packs an astonishing degree of intricacy and detail into fewer than 300 pages, knitting together several generations with a delicate touch. Although some characters' view points appear more than once, each chapter shifts to a new time period and perspective; oftentimes a supporting figure in one chapter would appear later as the narrator in another. There is no unifying event, no grand calamity that unifies the individuals stretched out across 100 years. Their humanity and the commotion of a life lived with feeling serve as anchor, to great effect.

Ms. Delury writes with an appealing frankness. Her prose avoids frivolity, yet by capturing the raw truth of actions and their consequences it achieves an appealing lyricism. Wry observations pepper each chapter, again written with a simple elegance that achieves beauty without pretension. Women comprise the majority of her first-person narrators, who span a wide range of ages and circumstances. Readers will doubtless find at least one relatable voice amongst the crowd, alongside many other sympathetic ones.

The sprawling interconnection of her characters might not simply encourage a second reading, but require it. Certain chapters told from the perspective of children, or relative outsiders, resign some impactful events to allusion rather than explanation. Several times I found myself turning back to refresh myself on names and events mentioned a few chapters ago.While my advance copy didn't contain any ancillary information, by the novel's end I would have appreciated a family tree to cement the relationships I'd been following. Also of note is the liberal sprinkling of untranslated French in conversations; those unfamiliar with the language will either want to keep Google Translate handy, or prepare to make some educated guesses.

There is a great deal to admire in Ms. Delury's debut, which showcases a conscientious approach to plot, characters, and language. I do not generally gravitate to this sort of story, which tempered my enjoyment a little, but I can easily recognize and praise its many strengths. The Balcony is a nuanced meditation on the hidden depths contained in every "ordinary" existence that suggests much in the way of future accomplishments for its author.


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