Though it is Duolingo that has transformed me from francophonie to Francophone. It is Judith Eagle’s The Pear Affair that has whisked me away to the Parisian dreams of my youth. Captivatingly set in 1960s Paris, The Pair Affair, for me, was the parfaite hommage to the childhood heroines of any nineties kid’s past (Madeline and Mathilda). Indeed, similarly abandoning her negligent carers, 12-year-old Nell transports readers from catacombs and cafés to boutiques and boulangeries in a frantic bid to find her former au pair, Perrine.
When Penelope Magnificent’s parents tell her that they will be taking a business trip to Paris, she insists on tagging along. Little do they know that Penelope, aka Nell, has ulterior motives. She is going to run away to find Perrine her old au pair, who is now a seamstress for an elite fashion house, Crown Couture. Perrine, or Pear, used to write to Nell every week promising to come to her rescue…until the letters mysteriously stopped. Equipped with all the know-how to navigate Paris, Nell breaks free from her parents’ hotel in a quest to be reunited with her dearest friend. She quickly discovers, however, that locating Pear is no easy feat. In fact, no one has seen her in weeks, and not a single adult is willing to listen. So, to help her find the answers she needs, Nell enlists the help of the hotel bellboy, Xavier. He introduces her to a network of tunnels that lie underneath the city and a whole cast of characters that are eager to uncover the truth. Whilst exploring the underground system, however, the gang stumble across a mystery that may just shock the whole of Paris…
As to be expected, there was a lot to be loved about this title. Skilfully channeling the outdoor dens and French exchange visits of our youth, Eagle magnificently breathes life into a 1960s Paris. Simultaneously supplying a one-stop shop for Parisian highlights, The Pear Affair, provides a behind-the-scenes look at what lies hidden underneath. Navigating underground networks, bursting into boulangeries and infiltrating fashion houses, Eagle’s Nell reminds me of the determined small-screen heroines of my childhood – Madeline and Mathilda. Although smart and courageous, they both longed to be loved by the people around them. As unintended it may be, it was clear to me that Pear was Nell’s Miss Honey and Xavier her Pepito. Through friendship and perseverance, Nell realises that she is not as alone as she first thought and that her narrative need not end with a couple of crappy parents. As such, following a whodunnit intrigue that could put Poirot to shame, The Pear Affair, encapsulates the iconic romanticism and, indeed, promise of possibility that we hold on to when visiting the city of lights.
Okay, so, one small criticism I have for this title is that the “fact vs fiction” ratio is not always quite right (for me). What I’m referring to here is the tendency to switch from heart-racing action to mind-numbing street directions. Although this level of research, of course, contributed to a believable sense of place 80% of the time, I occasionally found that the plethora of street names caused the narrative to lose its fictional fluidity. This is a shame because I know that Eagle has done this intentionally. She wishes to depict the true geography of Paris, and that she has! However, it did make me speculate whether too much ground was being covered logistically – and narratively. Yes, although the various subplots provided intrigue and an array of idyllic Parisian sets, I often felt like Nell’s issues were being shelved in favour of solving the case. Consequently, whilst Pear is the titular character, she is too absent as a fully formed character to carry the emotive ending alone.
Nevertheless, an over-commitment to geographical accuracy is a small price to pay for a title that excels in immersive imagery. Deftly transforming Paris into a high-stakes playground, I can guarantee that it will have children and parents alike reaching for their passports…
…and maybe a croque monsieur.