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The Balcony


The Balcony

From time to time, you might run across a work of fiction whose form elicits as much discussion as its content. Jane Delury’s THE BALCONY might be one of those books. Is it a novel? Or a series of short stories, connected via recurring characters --- and a shared setting? Ultimately this debate is not all that crucial to the book’s enjoyment, though it might provide conversation while your book club pours the first round of wine. What counts is that Delury, in her debut, offers a vivid, multifaceted portrait of a single specific place and its changing inhabitants over time.

THE BALCONY begins in 1992, as an American graduate student, brimming over with romantic notions about France and its culture, arrives at an estate outside the decidedly unromantic industrial village of Benneville. She will spend the summer as an au pair to a family about to embark on their own relocation to America. During her two months at the estate, the narrator grows increasingly annoyed with the mother Olga’s overprotection of the daughter, Elodie, while she grows increasingly flirtatious with the father, an academic studying an obscure poet from Madagascar with connections to Benneville.

"[E]ach of the chapters that comprise the book is a fully realized, at times heartrending vignette that captures moments of human drama both modest and monumental."

The country estate was purchased by Olga’s parents, Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, prior to the German occupation of France. Later in the book, readers learn more about that chaotic time, as villagers spied on one another and distrust of outsiders reached tragic heights. But THE BALCONY also settles on moments of quieter, more personal intensity, as when, in 1980, a young father’s return to the house with his son digs up (almost literally) conflicts and resentment from his own youth. Later, in 2000, that same man’s granddaughter learns a shocking family secret that might cause readers to revisit those family dynamics with new eyes.

The country estate --- which consists of a grand manor house and a more modest cottage --- is depicted as lush, almost Edenic, but also prone to rapid decline and decay, requiring great effort and expense to avoid succumbing to the forces of entropy. As the reader shifts forward and backward in time, the house and grounds give the impression of being somehow apart from history, despite the particulars of dates and world events, not to mention fashions, hairstyles and social issues. In the end, the narrative (or narratives) comes full circle, as both the first and last chapters tell very different stories of marital infidelity, with some characters in common.

Whether or not THE BALCONY is a traditional novel is something best left to the book clubs of the world to debate. Readers may enjoy piecing the larger chronology together, or spotting characters, objects or features of the landscape as they surface across the pages and the decades. What matters most at the end of the day is that each of the chapters that comprise the book is a fully realized, at times heartrending vignette that captures moments of human drama both modest and monumental.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 30, 2018

The Balcony
by Jane Delury

  • Publication Date: March 19, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316554685
  • ISBN-13: 9780316554688