If you ever wanted to get a feel for how “old moneyed” class interact with friends, house guests, and their environments then Cecile David-Weill’s The Suitors is a good place to start. Sisters Laure and Marie Ettinguer have been raised in a life of privilege – they have trust funds in place, have lived lives of luxury, and have always depended on the comforting rituals of their summers at L’Agapanthe – a distinguished and expensive summer home which has been in their family for ages. The sisters are surprised when their father, without consulting them, decides to sell the house. At the instigation of a family friend Laure hatches a plot to keep the house. She and her sister will invite a series of “suitors” to L’Agapanthe over the course of three consecutive weekends so that they can find one wealthy enough to keep their house in the family, and in style. However, each of the suitors comes with their own baggage, problems, and surprises.
The Suitors manages to be both a comedy of manners and a touching exploration of the meaning of home, sisterhood, and memory. Laure reveals as much about herself, and her family as she intimates the unspoken rules and quirks of her family’s ways and manners, as she does about the guests (and new butler) whose behavior is full of faux pas, and in many ways big and small not up to the family’s finely attuned standards. One of the best parts of reading The Suitors is watching the Ettinguer family react to the bold innovations of their temporary butler (their own butler falls ill at the start of the weekend). Neither change nor inventiveness is highly valued at L’Agapanthe, and you get a decided view of how estate families viewed their relationships and responsibilities to their employees. It made some things click in my mind with recent viewings of Downton Abbey. Even though this society is French and more modern, the point of L’Agapanthe is the preservation of the past, so there are many similarities as this family struggles with change.
While the translation of The Suitors seems a little shaky in the beginning (odd cadences and turns of phrase, along with some jarring inserted sections detailing some of Laure’s traumatic childhood memories) the narrative smooths out as it progresses and the story is an interesting one. It’s filled with the all the comforts (and the ridiculousness) of traditions and habits old and new. Sumptuous descriptions of the estate and their elaborate meals make for a charming read in more ways than one.