‘Many people come to France to reinvent themselves. They start a new story where no one knows their history.’
This premise for Amanda Hampson’s delightfully witty new book, The Yellow Villa, takes us into the lives of two ex-pat couples who strike up a friendship with startling consequences for all.
Australians Mia and Ben Tinker are thirty-somethings in crisis. Their marriage is on the rocks and mercurial Mia, a French-speaking art teacher, has called time out. Ben, a software engineer who lives in the virtual world, is desperate to win back his wife and one night, whilst trawling the ‘net, he hits on the means to bring them together again: a French villa!
Not just any French villa, but La Villa Jonquille, the romantic, yellow-shuttered house he and Mia fell in love with on their honeymoon four years ago in Cordes-sur-Ciel, in South-West France. On a mad impulse, Ben buys it. Mia, who adores France, is won over and the couple sell their inner city terrace and decamp to the French countryside to mend their broken hearts and, hopefully, reignite their passion for each other.
English expats Dominic and Susannah Harrington are also reinventing their lives, but in a different way. Now in their sixties, this worldly, ostensibly glamorous couple fled to France a year ago, leaving behind a terrible scandal they are anxious to keep secret.
Dominic is a former food critic, wine connoisseur and narcissist whose cellar is his nirvana. Eccentric and erratic, he is driving his highly-strung actress wife to wit’s end with his profligate spending and constant belittling. Susannah’s beauty is fading and she is lonely. She can’t speak a word of French and the only comforts she enjoys these days are her rose-covered arbour and pet pugs, Lou-Lou and Chou-Chou.
Bored and desperate for company having already alienated their village’s entire expat community, the Harringtons set out to woo their young neighbours with charm, fine wines and delicious food and – quelle surprise – they succeed. Ben, who is feeling a little displaced as he hardly speaks French, likes Dominic immediately and sees in him a man like his father ‘taciturn and easily irritated’, ‘but not a bad bloke’. Meanwhile, Mia warms to Susannah and when events take a turn for the worse after Dominic’s past comes back to haunt him, she becomes his wife’s greatest ally.
These four main characters, whose lives unfold in unexpected ways that leave the reader guessing right to the end, are colourfully and cleverly drawn by Hampson. Unlike solid and stolid Ben, Mia is ‘the mercurial one who needs talking down from life’s ledges’ while Susannah, a fragile woman with OCD, realises too late that ‘the dreams she once had have been worn away by the abrasions of life. Her potential squandered on worthless pursuits’.
However, it is Hampson’s egocentric epicure Dominic, who likes to see himself as ‘the Rain Man of Gastronomy’ renowned for the ‘finesse of his palate’ who will have readers chuckling at his sheer awfulness.
This hugely entertaining domestic drama is an unfolding delight where the good guys find happiness and the bad get their comeuppance. Definitely a favourite of ours.
Amanda Hampson was born in Wellington, NZ, where ‘Friday night was library night’ sparking a lifelong passion for books and writing. The bestselling author of The Olive Sisters and The French Perfumer, Hampson always dreamed of becoming a writer. She applied to become a cadet journalist after school, but fell pregnant at 16, reluctantly giving her son up for adoption. “Reading and writing have kept me sane during some of the most difficult times in my life,” she has said.
Hampson worked as a freelance magazine writer in London and Sydney before publishing two non-fiction titles, Battles with the Baby Gods, and Take Me Home – Families with Alzheimer’s. It took five years to write her first novel, The Olive Sisters, published in 2005.
Her second novel, Two for the Road was published in 2008 followed by The French Perfumer last year and this year’s The Yellow Villa. Hampson has three grandchildren and three adult children, including her son with whom she happily reunited in 1996.