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The French Are Back en Style

A trio of new books about la belle France center on truffles, wine, country houses — and murder

As if that’s not enough, Dom’s previous wife disappeared under mysterious circumstances. So Eve finds herself in vintage Jane Eyre territory, smitten by a mysterious stranger who may not be all — or who may be much more than — he appears to be. And trapped in a spooky house. Where his spooky wife used to live.

Heureusement for Eve, all this weirdness unfolds in one of the most beautiful spots on the face of Earth, so she toughs it out. Meanwhile, the narrative switches back and forth between her love affair with Dom and the adventures of a peasant girl named Bénédicte who lived in the house many years before. This too involves a murder. And a ghost. From time to time the ghost contacts Bénédicte, and from time to time some spectral figure tries to contact Eve. It may be Bénédicte—mon Dieu!

Though Bénédicte is an untutored peasant, she’s a bit quicker on the uptake than Eve. Her story is more compelling, too. Oddly enough, this juxtaposition makes The Lantern highly readable. Just when you’ve had enough of Eve’s insecurity and her inability to get a read on Dom, the story backpedals a few decades to the more engaging tale of Bénédicte, her blind perfumière sister, and their evil brother. In the end, that means you get two ghost stories for the price of one.

Lawrenson’s writing style — sensual, verging on florid — works well with this subject matter. “For about five days that first August, the hills bruised purple under black clouds,” she writes. That’s a perfect description of the French countryside. So is this: “They say this region was once under the ocean, many millions of years ago, that the rocks were shaped by the tides, and the stones contain outlines of forgotten sea creatures from the dawn of time. I would say there are days when all history stands still and all the spirits gather.”

So if you’re a fan of Franco-phantoms or despicable denizens of the Dordogne, you can’t go wrong with The Lantern or Black Diamond. If, on the other hand, you long to read a book about a French house that takes place primarily in English apartments, the Wells memoir could be just what le médecin ordered.

Joe Queenan is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of, among many other books, Closing Time: A Memoir and Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation. He spent a year in Paris under an Alliance Française scholarship in 1972.

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