Frances, a 21-year-old British woman, leaves her archival research project in Paris for “a week of light agricultural labor” on an organic farm in the countryside that’s been suggested as restorative for people who’ve had breakdowns. When the farm’s 44-year-old owner, Paul, picks her up in a McDonald’s parking lot by the bus stop, he scowls at “having to come to places like this.” As they drive deep into the Pyrenees, he eats an apple core off his dashboard because “there is too much waste in the world.” An anthropologist, he spent his earlier decades knocking around the South Pacific; he’s “spiritual” but not religious, he explains; he composts. He’s monastic and self-indulgent. “At the heart of it,” he tells her, “I would say I am a discoverer.”
In Daisy Lafarge’s debut novel, “Paul,” Frances astutely sketches a man both magnetic and odious, sometimes simultaneously charming and a total drag. Threat looms immediately when Frances discovers she’s the only volunteer on his farm, and soon Paul announces that he’s looking “for my goddess.” He starts calling Frances “coquine,” telling her it means “seashell,” though she later learns it means “tart.”
Frances is a rather listless contemporary heroine — describing herself as unsure of her passion, blank, prone to inertia, “formless except for the shape I can make by curling around others.” Whether she actually desires her ensuing romance with Paul doesn’t really come up; she finds it “painful to be given a choice,” and so Paul’s entrapment is enticing if only in its certainty. Where he seems to her “to have done so much, to be so much of a person,” Frances laments that all she’s done is follow older, more established men in their pursuits — including her academic supervisor, also her former lover, in Paris. Offering a casual observation about a local cathedral, she only belatedly realizes she’s parroting a lecture her supervisor gave in school — a lecture she hears in her head in Paul’s voice.
Through Frances’ idolization of Paul, the less starry-eyed reader encounters a deadpan appraisal of how convincingly fetishization can masquerade as virtue — a critique so on the nose that Paul’s almost a parody of what some might call Western male indulgence. Paul’s farm is named after Noa Noa, the journal Paul Gauguin kept when he fled Europe for Tahiti in 1891 and ended up married to a 13-year-old girl from the island. “The first time I visited Tahiti, everything changed for me,” our Paul tells Frances. “It was like I was cut loose from everything, all this Western conditioning.” Paul and most of his friends — “pseudo-eco-warriors” — tend to live in extreme and pure ways, their attempts to recreate the “richness” of distant worlds reeking of hollowness. In Paul’s travel journals Frances finds a 5-year-old island girl naked from the waist up. “Whose permission had he asked to take her photo?” she wonders silently. Presumably no one’s.
I experienced a mild current of dread for Frances as she bobbed along, distant and alien to herself, in exile from her life as she silently accompanies Paul on a jaunt across the French countryside. Her narration of life with Paul evokes the anthropologist’s vocation, and risk: a risk, as Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in “The Scope of Anthropology” (quoted in the novel’s epigraph), of “the complete absorption of the observer by the object of his observations.”
Lafarge is deft at mapping the arc of Frances’ shifting perception of her object of study, as her fascination with Paul curdles slowly, and then rapture turns to disgust all at once. Racing through the book toward the big reveal, guided by Lafarge’s sustained, brooding tension, the reader starts to suspect Frances has been the one with the power all along. Without her admiration, Paul too knows he’s not worth much; he needs her watching him in order to become the great adventurer he isn’t. We almost feel sorry for him.