The Girl at the Lion d’Or was the first of Sebastian Faulks’ French Trilogy to be written, although in terms of chronology it sits between Birdsong and Charlotte Gray. I’ve read Birdsong before, but when I sat down to read the whole French Trilogy I read them in the order they were written, beginning with The Girl at the Lion d’Or. I don’t think it really matters which order you read them in as they can all be read as effective standalone novels, however I think you’d get an awful lot more out of Charlotte Gray if you were already familiar with some characters in The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Birdsong.
I personally think that The Girl at the Lion d’Or is the weakest of Faulks’ French Trilogy. That’s not to say it’s bad by any means, but I was really blown away by Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, and I just didn’t connect with this book on anywhere near the same kind of level. Perhaps it’s because it’s set during the inter-war period whereas the others are in the full throes of World Wars One and Two, but I just didn’t feel as interested in the story and setting. In hindsight though, after reading Charlotte Gray in particular, I do think of The Girl at the Lion d’Or with a certain pang (gosh, how cryptic!), but I wasn’t wowed by it at the time of reading. It’s also the shortest by far of the three books and so perhaps didn’t have as much room for character development and the like, but at the same time I don’t feel the storyline could have been sustained for much longer.
The eponymous Girl at the Lion d’Or is Anne Louvert, an orphan young woman who goes to work at the titular hotel and begins an affair with one of the hotel regulars, Charles Hartmann. Anne has no family and moved to the area without knowing anyone local. It turns out she has a mysterious secret, which led to her lifestyle of moving about and avoiding making any close friends. She seems to be quite a lonely figure, but encourages Hartmann to seduce her, even though he’s a generation older than herself. The affair is short-lived though, as Hartmann recognises his loyalty to his wife Christine.
It’s a bit depressing to be honest, as the ending is ultimately unsatisfying. Both Anne and Charles are miserable once their affair’s ended. Anne’s had a pretty miserable life all round, so this just gives her something else to mope about and a knowing sense of suffering while she soldiers on. I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly drawn to her character, although I can’t really put my finger on why. Looking back on it, the scandal of Anne’s secret must actually have been quite a big deal, but when I read the reveal I was quite disappointed by it. I’d expected something more scandalous, when actually I suppose it was quite shocking, but the way it was revealed didn’t leave me feeling particularly shocked or at all moved by it. Maybe I’m just cold-hearted, who knows.
I did really enjoy the character of Hartmann though, and I certainly look back on him with a lot more fondness (and again rather a pang) after reading Charlotte Gray. He was by far my favourite (although I suppose there wasn’t really much competition as I didn’t like the main protagonist). It did feel like the book was a bit thin on plot and perhaps worked more as a character study, which may be why I felt so removed from it as I didn’t feel any connection with the main character of Anne at all. That’s not to say the book was bad by any means. I did enjoy reading it, but compared with Birdsong and Charlotte Gray I just felt that The Girl at the Lion d’Or was a little lacking in comparison and, dare I say it, a little dull. Sebastian Faulks is still one of my favourite authors though, and I genuinely think that Birdsong is one of the greatest books ever written. Perhaps the main problem with The Girl at the Lion d’Or is that it sits alongside Birdsong in a trilogy. After all, through no fault of its own, it could never possibly compare. Well, not in my eyes at least.