PAUL, by Daisy Lafarge
Frances, a 21-year-old British woman, is leaving her archival research project in Paris for “a week of light agricultural labour” at an organic rural farm that has been suggested to be recovering for those who have suffered a breakdown. When 44-year-old farm owner Paul picks her up from a McDonald’s parking lot at the bus stop, he looks angry because he has to “come to places like this”. As they drive deep into the Pyrenees, he eats a core off his dashboard because “there is too much garbage in the world”. As an anthropologist, he spent his earlier decades in the South Pacific; he is “spiritual” but not religious, he explains; he composts. He is monastic and complacent. “Basically,” he tells her, “I’d say I’m a… discoverer.”
In Daisy Lafarge’s debut novel, “Paul,” Frances astutely portrays a man who is both magnetic and odious, at times charming and total attraction at the same time. The threat immediately looms when Frances discovers that she is the only volunteer on his farm, and soon Paul announces that he is looking for “my goddess”. He begins to call Frances “coquine,” and tells her it means “seashell,” though she later learns it means “pie.”
Frances is a rather listless contemporary heroine – describing herself as insecure of her passion, empty, prone to inertia, “shapeless except the shape I can make by curling around others.” Whether she really desires her subsequent romance with Paul isn’t really discussed; she finds it “painful to be given a choice,” which is why Paul’s trap is enticing, if only in his certainty. Where, according to her, “has done so much, is such a person,” Frances complains that she only follows older, more established men in their pursuits — including her academic supervisor, also her former lover, in Paris. With a casual observation about a local cathedral, she only realizes late that she is pondering a lecture her supervisor gave at school—a lecture she hears in her head in Paul’s voice.
Through Frances’s glorification of Paul, the less rigid reader is left with a deadpan assessment of how convincing fetishization can masquerade as a virtue—a critique so blatant that Paul is almost a parody of what some Western male indulgences might be. to call. Paul’s farm is named after Noa Noa, the diary Paul Gauguin kept when he fled Europe to Tahiti in 1891 and eventually married a 13-year-old girl from the island. “The first time I visited Tahiti, everything changed for me,” our Paul tells Frances. “It was like being cut free from everything, all this Western conditioning.” Paul and most of his friends – “pseudo-eco-warriors” – tend to live in extreme and pure ways, their attempts to recreate the “wealth” of distant worlds that reek of emptiness. In Paul’s travelogues, Frances finds a 5-year-old island girl naked from the waist down. “Whose permission did he ask to take a picture of her?” she wonders silently. Probably no one.
I felt a mild rush of fear for Frances as she floated on, distant and alien to herself, in exile from her life as she quietly accompanies Paul on a jaunt through the French countryside. Her story of living with Paul evokes the vocation and risk of the anthropologist: a risk, as Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in “The Scope of Anthropology” (cited in the novel’s epigraph), of “the complete recording of the observer through the object of his observations.”
Lafarge is adept at charting the arc of Frances’ changing perception of her object of study, as her fascination with Paul slowly falters, then her rapture turns to disgust. As he races through the book to the big reveal, led by Lafarge’s lingering brooding tension, the reader begins to suspect that Frances is the one in power all along. Without her admiration, Paul also knows that he is not worth much; he needs her to look at him to become the great adventurer he is not. We almost feel sorry for him.
Antonia Hitchens is a writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Town & Country, among others.
PAUL, by Daisy Lafarge | 294 pages | Riverhead Books | $26