Review: ‘Paul,’ by Daisy LaFarge

PAUL, by Daisy Lafarge

Frances, a 21-year-old Briton, leaves her archival research project in Paris for “a week of light agricultural work” at an organic farm in the countryside that has been suggested as a restorative for those down. When 44-year-old farm owner Paul picks her up from the parking lot of a McDonald’s near the bus stop, he scows at “having to come to places like this”. As they sink into the Pyrenees, he eats an apple core on his dashboard because “there is too much waste in the world”. Anthropologist, he spent his first decades traveling the South Pacific; he is “spiritual” but not religious, he explains; he composts. He is monastic and self-indulgent. “Basically,” he told her, “I’d say I’m a discoverer.

In Daisy Lafarge’s first novel, “Paul”, Frances artfully sketches a man who is both magnetic and obnoxious, sometimes both charming and totally irresistible. The threat looms immediately when Frances discovers that she is the only volunteer on his farm, and soon Paul announces that he is looking for “my goddess”. He begins to call Frances “naughty”, telling her it means “seashell”, although she later learns it means “pie”.

Frances is a rather apathetic contemporary heroine – describing herself as uncertain of her passion, empty, prone to inertia, “formless except for the form I can create by wrapping myself around others”. Whether she actually desires her ensuing romance with Paul doesn’t really arise; she finds it “painful to have a choice”, and so Paul’s trap is seductive if only in its certainty. Where it seems to her “to have done so much, to be so much of a person”, Frances laments that all she has done is follow older, more established men in their pursuits – including her academic director, also her former lover , in Paris . Offering an informal observation at a local cathedral, she only belatedly realizes that she is repeating a lecture her supervisor gave at school – a lecture she hears in her head along with Paul’s voice.

Through Frances’ idolatry of Paul, the less starred reader encounters a deadpan appreciation of how compellingly fetishism can masquerade as virtue – a critique so on the nose that Paul is almost a parody of what some might call western male indulgence. Paul’s farm is named after Noa Noa, the diary Paul Gauguin kept when he fled Europe for Tahiti in 1891 and found himself 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 off from everything, from all that Western conditioning.” Paul and most of his friends – the “pseudo-eco-warriors” – tend to live in an extreme and pure way, their attempts to recreate the “wealth” of distant worlds reeking of emptiness. In Paul’s travel journals, Frances finds a 5-year-old island girl naked from the waist down. “Who had he asked permission to take her picture? she asks herself silently. Presumably no one.

I felt a slight undercurrent of dread for Frances as she floated, distant and alien to herself, in exile from her life as she silently accompanies Paul on a ride through the French countryside. His story of life with Paul evokes the vocation and the risk of the anthropologist: a risk, as Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in “The scope of anthropology” (quoted in the epigraph of the novel), of “the absorption completeness of the observer by the object of his observations.

Lafarge is adept at mapping the arc of Frances’ shifting perception of her object of study, as her fascination with Paul slowly curdles, then rapture turns to disgust all at once. As we navigate the book towards the big reveal, guided by Lafarge’s sustained, brooding tension, the reader begins to suspect that Frances has always been the one with the power. Without his admiration, Paul also knows that he is not worth much; he needs her to watch over him to become the great adventurer he is not. We almost pity him.

Antonia Hitchens is a writer whose work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Town & Country, among other publications.

PAUL, by Daisy Lafarge | 294 pages | Riverhead Books | $26

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