Release Date: 2016
Duration: 4 hours
Reviewed for NSR by Michael Rogers (Babylon, New York)
John Steinbeck often tackles the affairs of the common man and the political climate that impacts him, but usually in a serious tone (The Grapes of Wrath isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs). This 1957 novel also incorporates those themes, but Steinbeck shows a different side of himself by presenting them in a wicked satire so biting that Jonathan Swift would be envious.
Protagonist Pippin Héristal is an amateur astronomer who spends most of his mundane existence listening to jazz and photographing the heavens through his telescope (he discovered the comet of ’51, you know!) in his Paris eighth-arrondissement home with little concern for the machinations of his fellow men. Allowing her husband his lackadaisical manner, wife Marie is a practical woman who maintains an orderly house, abhors waste, and keeps a firm grip on the family income provided by their property on which grapes producing a fine, much-desired wine are grown. Their daughter Clotilde is an anomaly—at 15 she wrote a novel that became a sensation and was morphed into a film. Instant fame paved the way for her to take to the stage and tour America. Clotilde does everything to the extreme. She is pretty but fat, a communist, clumsy and an American by osmosis. They live simply, quietly, and anonymously…or at least did.
It’s the year “19-blank” and France is in a funk; it’s greatness as a world leader has waned as its government increasingly is bogged down in never-ending bickering between the sundry ridiculous political parties—the Radical Conservatives and Conservative Radicals, the Right Centralists and the Left Centralists, the Christian Atheists, etc.—that disagree on everything to the point where leadership and progress are strangled.
The politicos decide that to reclaim France’s former glory the country must reinstate the monarchy, but who will wear the crown? Alas, poor Pippin is several generation descended from Charlemagne long rotting in the ground, and as he is a reasonable fellow, he retired to bed a commoner and awakens a king! While a king’s job is to rule, those who appointed him in reality only want the pomp and circumstance of a monarch (it makes good newspaper copy and brings in money from across the world) without actually having him in charge. Dragged off to live in Versailles (hot, dirty, full of freeloaders endlessly eating and drinking, bad plumbing, and snooty servants that bow and curtsy graciously and then completely ignore their orders) that life for Pippin becomes an astronomical pain in the ass. Marie endures with grace while Clotilde’s outrageous personality makes her a natural princess.
Pippin and Marie turn to their closest friends for council—for Pippin it’s his uncle Charlie, a shady art dealer who sells unsigned paintings that “might” be the work of a master (and might be cheap fakes) while Marie seeks solace from Sister Hyacinth, a former topless chorus girl who joined a religious order founded by the patron saint of feet!
Poor Pippin is so miserable and out of his depth that he begins taking kingly advice from Clotilde’s teenage boyfriend Tod Johnson, son of the American “Egg King of Petaluma,” whose dad built a multimillion dollar empire in chickens. Tod asserts that monarchs essentially are CEOs and that Pippin must run France like a corporation, including selling nobleman titles to rich Americans to generate bribe money. Everyone is making a quick buck of the new monarchy while the king himself has to sneak out in disguise and putt around the countryside on his scooter just to get a meal!
Steinbeck piles on the irony, sarcasm, and laughs—all the political parties claim to want what’s best for France when they really want what’s best for themselves and screw the other guy. Narrator Jefferson Mays delivers a perfect reading, breathing life into the characters and emphasizing the biting humor with just the right amount of a French accent when needed.
With current headlines, this political screwball comedy will be much appreciated.
Special thank you to Michael Rogers, former Media Editor and audiobook reviewer at Library Journal, for contributing this and other audio reviews to NSR. Publishers/producers interested in getting their (newly released) audiobooks reviewed on NSR should contact Michael directly at email@example.com.