Book review: ‘The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles,’ by Katherine Pancol

January 16

THE YELLOW EYES OF CROCODILES

By Katherine Pancol

Translated from the French by William Rodarmor and Helen Dickinson

Penguin. 435 pp. Paperback, $16

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles,” which has been a runaway bestseller in France and translated into more than two dozen languages, seems at first to follow a traditional women’s-novel formula: A drab middle-aged housewife is deserted by her caddish husband, roundly tormented by her bratty adolescent daughter and forced to pinch pennies and take odd jobs. The strength of her virtue finally shines through, and she loses weight, gets highlights in her hair, earns enough money to justly be called rich, and ends up with a darling boyfriend, while her ex-husband dies an ignominious death. Except that this book is set in Paris, and the author is seriously French, so it’s really about money — what it can and cannot buy. (Just as “Madame Bovary ,” although it’s all about infidelity, is really about money: She kills herself not for love but because she can’t pay the bills for her wild extravagance.)

But “Crocodiles” is a comedy. At the beginning, Joséphine Cortès is an authentic drudge. Her husband, an all-too-recognizable, chronically unemployed fop, has nothing but disdain for her. “He couldn’t stand his wife anymore. He couldn’t stand her schoolmarm tone, her slouch, her shapeless, colorless clothes, her bad skin, her limp brown hair. Everything about her reeked of effort and thrift.” Soon after this insight, the husband is gone, having decided to make millions of euros breeding crocodiles in Kenya, but not before he has emptied their joint account and taken out a giant loan to invest in the business. Not only that, he’s run off with his manicurist to keep him company in the African swamp.

Joséphine, or Jo, is, of course, devastated. But she’s not going to get much comfort from her family. Her adolescent daughter, Hortense, is, unfortunately a great beauty, and she doesn’t bother to hide her scorn. “You made my father leave because you’re ugly and boring and there’s no way I’m going to be like you,” she tells her mother. “I’ll . . . make sure I won’t. . . . I don’t want to be poor! I hate poor people!” Worst of all, there’s Jo’s big sister, Iris, who mysteriously quit a stellar career at Columbia University’s graduate film school to marry a rich attorney. “There are women who suffer an embarrassment of leisure and those who master it,” Iris likes to say. “Doing nothing is an art.” Like Hortense, Iris is a raving beauty and arrogant about it. She, too, has contempt for Jo, because all Jo has is a PhD in 12th-century literature, which allows her to make pennies tutoring and translating.

It turns out, of course, that Iris’s blather and bravado are just that. She’s going crazy doing nothing, realizing that no matter how beautiful she may be, a wife is just a wife and has to have at least some accomplishment to back her up. Desperate to have attention paid to her, she comes up with a hare-brained scheme: Jo will write a historical novel set in the 12th century; beautiful Iris will go on talk shows and take credit for it. Jo will get the money and Iris, the admiration.

As you can imagine, not everything goes as planned. Pancol peoples her story with maybe a dozen other characters, several of them teenagers. Without exception, they’re disagreeable (you might call them “French”). Even long-suffering Jo slugs Hortense every once in a while. The author notes that the gold in the eyes of the crocs in Kenya represents the money everyone values above all else. There’s a three-part ending here that’s utterly preposterous, but hey, nothing’s perfect! — and this is a satisfying read.

See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.

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