This delightful novel is the story of an early middle-aged London advertising executive who abandons his lucrative career to open and manage a small boutique hotel in the Provence region of France. The story is humorous throughout. There is a second plot line which involves a plan to rob a bank in a neighboring village to where the new hotel is located.
Simon Shaw is the main character, a pretentious and over-worked executive who we meet as he is approaching a divorce from his second wife. He moves from his spacious home with his manservant Ernest to a small flat. Ernest suggests a holiday to calm Simon’s nerves and so the adventure begins. Simon takes his “fun car” (a Porsche) on a jaunt to the beaches of South France. A minor mishap on the roadway forces Simon to interrupt his trip with an unplanned stopover in Le Luberon, a mountainous region in the middle of Provence. While Simon waits impatiently for his auto repair he meets and becomes enamored with a young single woman named Nicole Bouvier. Simon becomes smitten with the region as well as with Madame Bouvier. The author vividly describes the view Simon enjoys as he collects his thoughts in a local café:
“It was full south, overlooking a long, flat plain that ended at the foot of the Luberon, perhaps five miles away. The evening sunlight, slanting in from the west, made shadows of deep black in the folds of the mountain, contrasting with the lighter haze, somewhere between purple and grey, of the rock face, and the green of pine and oak trees. Down on the plain, the orderly lines of vines were broken up by scattered farm buildings that might have been painted onto the landscape, flat and sharp and glowing. A toy tractor, bright yellow, moved silently along the black ribbon of road. Everything else was motionless.”
Simon must return to London before the Porsche repairs are complete, so Nicole volunteers to drive his auto back to him. When they meet again in London, Nicole spontaneously suggests he consider joining her in an enterprise renovating the old gendarmerie in her home village and turning it into a world-class boutique hotel. Simon takes the bait and scuttles his life in London and moves with Ernest (and Ernest’s faithful companion, a bull terrier named Mrs. Gibbons). Meanwhile, the plot to rob a bank in the neighboring village takes shape. Eight conspirators train for their escape on bicycles by taking long looping rides in the nearby hills. The sub-plots begin to overlap as many of the would-be bank robbers are also craftsmen who begin the renovation work on Simon and Nicole’s vision. The new establishment is named the Hotel Pastis in honor of a local beverage, a locally popular anise drink similar to Sambuca or Ouzo.
The rest of the book revolves around the proper design and construction of the Hotel Pastis as well as the finding the proper chef (eventually hiring an obese local, Madame Pons), purchasing the proper landscape trees and appeasing the locals. The locals include mobsters who want to be paid for “protection” of the hotel and its guests as well as a veteran travel writer who resents the intrusion of this new hotel into his own private paradise. The plans for the bank heist proceed as well. The only real problem is that once the Hotel Pastis is up and running, Simon realizes that his role is a never-ending one with constant worries and problems. He has traded one set of headaches for another quite different one. His naivete wears off quite quickly. The day of the bank robbery there is a hilarious complication during the bicycle escape, the resolution of which enables all to end well (except for the bank).
The strengths of this book are many. The descriptions of the French countryside, the food, wine and champagne all make your mouth water. The plots are fairly mundane, but really are just a backdrop for all of this lush description. The real strength here, however, is the cast of characters. Hotel Pastis is the literary equivalent of a Robert Altman film: There is an ensemble cast of quirky but likable folks with a lot of humorous things to say: Ernest and Mrs. Gibbons, Simon and Nicole, Caroline (Simon’s ex-wife), Madame Pons, JoJo and the General (the main bank robbers) and Francoise, the ingénue mayor’s daughter hired to run the front desk. The romantic entanglements are frequent and add to the overall frivolity of the novel.
Hotel Pastis is a fun read which makes the reader want to hop on a plane and travel to Provence to experience firsthand all of the wonderful sights, sounds and flavors of the region which are expertly woven into this entertaining novel.