Book review: The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon – delightfully quiet & funny

July 24, 2020

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.

Sometimes you read a book that is so unusual and just ‘hits the spot’ in every way. The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon was one such book for me and reading the other online reviews I realise that there are many people who feel the same way.

Book cover of The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon from book review post

The Foundling Boy was published in 1975 and translated from its original French into English more recently. It is an account of the education of a naïve young person, Jean, and the formation of his character, in this case inspired by Henry Fielding’s 18th-century novel “Tom Jones,” about a similarly clueless but likeable character making his way on the road of life.

I loved the humour in this book, the way the author addresses the reader directly. He often explains what happens to characters that Jean meets before the story can progress. His descriptions always hit the nail on the head, whether in length or as he says, in six words:

Writing about a French prostitute Mireille:

“She is thirty-three and her vine-shoot look is at its peak. sinewy, swarthy, almost flat-chested, restlessly in motion, she is not one of those voluptuous creatures between whose breasts and bottom some men love to lose themselves. On the other hand, there is not one eligible bachelor, who, passing within range, fails to guess what flame keeps her warm. I feel that we are edging towards the trivial, that we would do better not to elaborate, but merely to limit ourselves to six words: in bed Mireille is a bomb.”

William Boyd once said about this author, “Everyone should read at least one Michel Déon book in their life.”

The story is about Jean but you also get very involved in the stories of other characters in the book and how their lives are linked at birth when Jean, a baby boy, is found abandoned outside the house of Albert and Jeanne Arnaud in Normandy. Raised by the Arnauds, Jean also attracts the attention of a family of local landowners. The lives of the main characters move apart but remain inextricably entwined.

Jean and his creator were both born in 1919. The novel follows Jean until he is about 20 years old and leaves him as a recruit in the French Army at the beginning of World War II. In the two decades between the wars, Jean has time to learn about manners, travel and sex, whom to trust, how to speak other languages and, above all, what to read. He is reassured to discover that “according to Stendhal, it was no crime to make mistakes, to give in to your enthusiasms, to be happy or unhappy because a girl made you suffer,” and so his picaresque adventures unfold in cheerful profusion, in and out of foreign countries and strange beds. He is always rescued from scrapes by his good nature, good character and good looks. The description of the social times in rural France and the outsider’s take on England at the same time is revealing. 

Michel Déon, who was born in Paris and died in Galway in 2016 at the age of 97, was the author of more than 50 works of fiction and non-fiction, and a member of the Académie française, however only a handful have been translated. There is a second part to The Foundling Boy story and is called The Foundling’s War which I have managed to find mat Mr. B’s Emporium and I will be reviewing it soon. It was Mr. B’s Emporium that recommended the first book to me when I went there for a ‘Book Spa’ – read the review of this day HERE.

I cannot recommend this book more highly as I was swept up in the story and the style of writing. It made me chuckle and I came to re-read sections as the descriptive words were so joyous. I will add this book to my list of favourite books that I have read. If you read it do let me know what you think in the comments section below this post.

‘It is shamefully parochial of us that this eminent writer has been so ignored by the anglophone world’.

Sunday Times

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