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Meet Karen. Expat fashion writer. French cottage owner. Devoted mother of Biff. Frustrated girlfriend of a dashing Portuguese hunk. Tout Soul is her 3rd book about a relocated life in rural France and after her previous tales of upping and leaving Blighty (book 1) and falling in love with the aforementioned dashing hunk (book 2) she's now moved her focus to the pursuit of happiness.
This book was an absolute delight to read, with a wonderful mix of descriptions (both of characters and of the scenery) and proper plot. It reads like a well written novel and yet you know it's more or less the truth of how this period of Karen's life panned out which makes it even more special. There are so many people moving abroad these days who think writing a book is the right thing to do (and easy to boot) but what makes this one stand out from the rest is the way the story is told. It could just as easily be set in the UK as it's not about the 'novelty factor' of a Brit abroad but about real, personal relationships. I'd not read the other books in the series but the characters are all given full introductions so I didn't feel like I'd missed out, though now I would like to go back and read the earlier tales even knowing, so to speak, how it all ends.
France is one of the few European countries I've never lived in, but in many ways I feel like I now have thanks to Karen's evocative writing about Gallic life. From the pace of life to the trials of house maintenance in a foreign climate, from elderly yet lovable rogues living next door to tarty yet lovable single mothers round the corner, this book paints a full and vivid picture of an expat life done right. Karen's writing is quite straight up and it's hard not to identify with her. I loved her description of the spa in Spain, because it made me feel that for all her beauty and fashion writer guru status, she's as ordinary as the next person when it comes to having to down shots of cucumber juice, or hike almost vertical hills in the blistering sun. She doesn't travel much - just that one trip to Spain and a few back and forths to London while promoting her earlier books - but even within France she's never sitting still for long. There are restaurant openings and reopenings to attend, musical recitals to sit through, hospital wards to break into - really never a dull moment.
So far I've described a happy, upbeat book which in a lot of ways this is, but I was shocked by the turn of events midway through that brought a much darker and sadder feel to the second half. Karen may be on a mission to bring more happiness to her life but when something entirely unexpected and quite horrifying happens, that's a goal that may have to be put to one side as she deals with the reality of a situation she would never have dreamed she'd find herself in. This development is told well but not in an overly emotional way that would leave you cringing. And while it may only be one side of the story, you do get the feeling that she's being open and honest with the readers.
This book comes highly recommended. It was an easy read that seemed to contain an appropriate sprinkling of French - not so much that half of ever page was translation in brackets, but enough that you still remembered where the book was supposed to be set.
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk
Out now on Kindle and in paperback