One reviewer called this book “Downton Abbey in the South of France set in the current century.” For the many fans of this PBS Masterpiece series, that’s high praise and probably enough to get them reading Cecile David-Weill’s witty, fun book about two sisters who scheme to save their family’s home on the beautiful French Riviera. The sisters, Laure and Marie, learn of their parents’ plan to sell the family’s summer retreat, L’Agapanthe, and devise a plan for attracting a wealthy suitor who can afford to purchase the estate. Selling it would mean more than just losing a place to go during the summer – for the sisters, it’s become a necessary part of their character, their lifestyle, and their past.
L’Agapanthe, a place of charm and nostalgia, is the perfect venue to exercise proper etiquette and intellect, though not all its visitors are socially savvy, especially when it’s a matter of understanding the relationships between old money and the nouveau riche. The comedy of manners begins: with stock traders, yogis, fashion designers, models, swindlers, the Mafia, and a number of celebrity guests.
Laure — witty, disarming and well-divorced — is the narrator and guides readers through elegant dinners, midnight swims in the bay, chit chat, house guest faux pas, as well as the romantic hopes and disappointments of two sisters who, above all, care most about each other.
L’ Agapanthe, like other homes of its caliber, is a house run like a discrete, lavish hotel for a select group of invited friends and acquaintances. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming expense of running such a place, Laure’s parents decide to put it up for sale. Crushed, Laure and Marie hatch a plot to seduce a billionaire (there are quite few running around), who will either pay for the manse or so horrify their parents with his nouveau riche ways that they’ll take L’ Agapanthe off the market immediately.
The author describes this society in fascinating detail — complete with seating charts and chauffeur pick-up schedule — elevating this book from a mere romp through old-money families of France into an intelligent, engaging study of a society that seems as if it should be extinct by now. When a first-time guest arrives, for example, and proclaims he’s “delighted” to be there, Laure dissects this unexpected breech of etiquette for a full page while admitting that “managing to make so many gaffs into one greeting was in fact a kind of triumph.”