I put The Rain Watcher, Tatiana DeRosnay’s eleventh novel on my reading list because I am a devoted fan. While Sarah’s Key was her blockbuster success and an important addition to sub-genre of novels devoted to the Holocaust, I have loved many of her other books as well.
Her prose is rich and atmospheric. Her characters are well rounded and fully fleshed out. Whenever I read one of her stories, I feel I know them well and some of them stay with me.
This is true for Linden, this novel’s charismatic, yet wounded narrator. He is a man who has carried profoundly damaging experiences and must face them. In spite of this, he is a generous and giving man, open to the world. This is what makes him an excellent photographer. As he confronts his sorrows and peels them back layer by layer, his story unfolds in an interesting way —what he has done to be successful, and how he needs to come full circle. This plays out against the backdrop of a natural disaster in the city that both set him free and holds him back.
De Rosnay writes both historical and contemporary fiction and this book has the feel of both. I read it at the start of hurricane season as Hurricane Laura was barreling toward the coast. It didn’t head our way this time but as the Seine was rising, I could feel the familiar panic of water surging when there is nothing to be done but wait and hope for the best. I had been totally unfamiliar with the devastating Paris flood of 1910 or the more recent flooding of 2016 and 2018. For me, this damage to the beautiful city was eye opening. We are all living under the threat of some kind of climate disaster and the way we experience Paris slowly going under water in this story is particularly unnerving.
The Rain Watcher is a story of long held secrets within the Malegarde family set against an unanticipated, unimaginable natural disaster.
They are a Franco-American family. The mother and father, Lauren and Paul, have a romantic beginning. As a twenty year old traveling through Europe with her sister, the American mother, Lauren, sees Paul, a gardener, in a small village, Drome, south of Lyon, about a six-hour drive from Paris.
“Just look at his hands.” ….Lauren , in a sort of trance had never seen anyone touch plants the way that man did.
At the time, it seemed enough. And she never left.
At least she was right about his hands. Paul was gifted. He became a tree specialist, revered by environmentalists and botanists the world over. But he never learned to speak English nor to express himself with words. He was only capable of limited gestures. And Lauren never really mastered French. So the children, Tilia and Linden, each spoke to their parents in their native languages. And in a limited way.
Linden was uncomfortable in this small village, with his differences he didn’t understand that he went to live with his mother’s sister, Candace in Paris. This is where he begins to discover who he is and finds his life’s passion.
The family has now come to Paris (partners, children, and spouses not invited) to celebrate the parents 40th anniversary and Paul’s 70th birthday. Tilia, an artist, arrives from London; Linden, now a famous photographer comes from San Francisco. As they arrive, there are warnings of potential flooding. A statue, Le Zouave on Pont de l’Alma, regularly used as a measure of Seine flooding, is beginning to show signs of trouble. The river is beginning to rise. Comparisons are being made to the flood of 1910.
Flood of 1910 and 2016
Disaster strikes the family and the river.
It has wolfed up each bank, swallowed all the bridge’s footings. Plastic chairs, recycle bins, tree trunks cavort by, whamming into the bridge’s foundations with cavernous whacks. The pont Royal appears truncated, lying low across the roaring current.
The secrets bubble up. Linden has not yet come out to his father and desperately wants him to meet his longtime partner. (Warning: The homophobia he has come up against is very difficult to read and in parts made me cry). Tilia has not been able to talk about the tragic accident she was in that has left her lame and married to another loser. The mother has her own secrets. And what will we learn about Paul?
But Paul has a stroke and Paris is flooding. Not only is the water rising but so is the tension.
No spoilers. This is a marvelous read and I encourage it. The story shows us how we are all the same the world over, all facing the same climate problems, the same family issues, the same way of coming together and if we trust each other a bit more, we’d save ourselves heartache and open ourselves to love.
The book opens with this. A small sample of its beauty. I was looking for the translator but as far as I can determine DeRosnay also grew up in a French-English speaking home and translates her own books. In fact, she has written several of her books in English. What a talent. This is about a linden tree. Both children were named for it. Linden in English, Tilia, in French.
I will start with the tree. Because everything begins and ends, with the tree. The tree is the tallest one. It was planted way before the others….. No one can find me when I’m up here. I don’t mind the silence because so many sounds fill it. The rustle of the leaves.The moan of the wind. The buzz of a bee. The chirp of the cicadas.The flutter of bird’s wing. When the mistral is up and rushes through the valley, the thousands of branches swishing sound like the sea. This is where I came to play. This was my kingdom.