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3.4 out of 5 stars
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3.4 out of 5 stars
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We begin this remarkable and hugely enjoyable novel with Raoul, the young French roofer, contracted to replace the roof and hassled into a quicker job than is safe. The owners are Americans, Alan Sandler, who has a less than salubrious past in objects d'art from the Middle East, and his wife Lucy who is good at keeping these Languedoc peasants at their work. They've probably spent too much already on the house, but Alan wants a lawn, a cherry tree, and a pool to swim in. They have obligations elsewhere for much of the time and so they rent the house out for the summer to an English couple, Nick and Sarah Mallinson, and their three youngsters, Tammy (9), Alicia (7) and Beans (actually called Fulvia, but what she's full of is beans, aged 3). So far so utterly charming and innocent. Nick has a doctorate in History (oil in Africa), about which he knows more than most people, and is taking a sabbatical for the summer. Nick was married when he met Sarah - she was a student in his history group. Now he's married to her and his son by his first marriage, Jamie, is to appear later in the story.

The weather starts out colder than promised but the kids are enjoying themselves. There may be some faint intimations that matters may not continue to be so salubrious when the gardener Jean-Luc's preoccupations are tipped into the mixture. The Sandlers visit from time to time, hassling about the lawn (which is subjected to wreckage by the wild boars who live in surrounding woods). There is some faint worry about some of the portents and messages, that suggest the house has an older, deeper history, and wartime memories in the nearby village are still remarkably sharp.

This is a triple-toned book. On the surface is the innocence of the Mallinsons, their casual enjoyment of the holiday - what can possibly go wrong in such a delightful place? Then on the next level there are the American couple, whose involvement in the area has a slightly more troublesome feel to it; and then, at a deeper layer altogether, those who live in the village whose history during the war, and after, involves bitter rivalries and resonances that only the villagers properly understand. It is a sheer, though sometimes horrifically teasing, delight.
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VINE VOICEon 9 August 2008
I have found a number of Adam Thorpe's other novels more admirable for the quality and depth of their writing than in any way enthralling.

Unfortunately, after a promising start, this one also fell away for me. Thorpe paints a vivid and convincingly mundane portrait of the comfortably middle-class odd couple who have taken their children away to France on a sabbatical.

He builds up a head of steam in terms of mystery, tension and impending menace, although the tropes of perception and appearance and reality and the fear of the unknown/different among those who have made a conscious decision to change their lives seem a little tired and uninspired.

However, the book falls flat with the unnecessarily tricksy ending; there are times when a linear narrative demands a linear ending. I suspect this was one of those occasions, as the tricksiness is misplaced and sits very uneasily with what has gone before it.
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This is the first Adam Thorpe novel I've read, and I must say I'm now eager for more, largely because of Thorpe's brilliant analyses of the human condition, and his superb use of dialogue. 'The Standing Pool' is the story of two Cambridge academics, Nick and Sarah, who take a six-month sabbatical in the Languedoc, after Nick fails to be promoted to Professor and becomes ill with stress. Nick and Sarah have three lively young daughters: book-loving Tammy, boisterous Alicia and lively toddler Beans (real name Fulvia). Full of zeal, they decide to 'home school' the girls for their six months in France, and to enjoy the simple life. But life as the Mas des Fosses turns out to not be quite as simple as the Mallinsons think. First, there are the usual domestic crises (power cuts, swimming pool PC levels not being properly regulated, Sarah getting exhausted with domestica, the girls getting bored). Then, there is the presence of Jean-Luc, the gardener and handyman, who at first appears pleasant if taciturn, but later turns out to have a sinister secret, and to be anything but benignly simple. And there is the presence of Nick's son from his first marriage, Jamie, a hippy out of his time, who turns up intent on a long visit, and devotes himself to slowly driving his father and stepmother crazy. Later, the Mallinsons have to put up with the presence of the owners of the house, the Sandlers (American art dealer Alan, English rose and gallery owner Lucy), who turn up on a visit that has surprising consequences...

What is particularly brilliant about this book is Thorpe's analysis of an academic family. He's got the way academics think and behave absolutely right: from Nick's constant talking and pondering over things, and moments of middle-aged self-disgust, to Sarah's craving to get on with some work while getting bogged down in child care, to the earnest discussions the couple have over suppers. And yet the Mallinsons don't come across as pompous - in fact, both Nick and Sarah are rather loveable. Thorpe manages to be gently humorous about the academic mind without condemning his characters or making them look foolish. He is observant without being harshly satirical. Although I initially found the girls a bit irritatingly cute, after a few pages I began to think that they were very well created too: I particularly liked the bookish Tammy, with her love of myths and legends, and thought Thorpe wrote well about Alicia's frustration about being less academic than her sister. Thorpe has a keen ear for family banter. He's also very good on the turbulent relationship between Sarah, Nick and the irritating but also strangely attractive Jamie. And I enjoyed reading about Nick's relationship with his daughters (my father, also an academic, read me and my brother Greek and Norse myths when we were small, just like Nick, and I must say we loved it, as does Nick's Tammy!).

To be honest, I found the second story, dealing with Jean-Luc the troubled handyman, less interesting. Yes, Thorpe writes brilliantly about mental disintegration, and slowly shows us Jean-Luc's growing insanity with great skill. But Jean-Luc is not a particularly compelling madman, and the numerous scenes in which he works on his 'art' in his room and fantasizes about Sarah (who he watches skinnydipping) can get monotonous. I would have liked to read more about the Languedoc region (Thorpe's current home, about which he does write incredibly well when he gives himself the space) and about other people in the village and the surrounding area - I felt the bits of the novel dealing with the locals became a little too Jean-Luc focussed. But Thorpe creates two wonderfully witty portraits of middle-class life in the Sandlers, Alan and Lucy. The scene where Alan attempts to convince everyone that Jean-Luc is a new Damian Hirst was priceless! Lucy's self-assurance (laced with insecurity?) and Alan's jovial bonhomie provided a brilliant contrast to the intellectual talk of the Sandlers, and the scenes where the couples chat were wonderfully written.

All in all a very interesting and vivid read - five stars for Thorpe's perceptiveness about the lives and thoughts of academics, and for his portrayal of family life.
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on 25 July 2008
A haunting, sinister and brilliantly observed story by one of the best novelists around about a young family's break at a ramshackle old farm in the South of France. An under-current of threat and terror throughout, that age-old tension between France and Britain, some harrowing wartime memories and best of all some memorable descriptions of life in rural France. A slow burn but worth it....
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on 2 November 2015
There may be a reasonable crime or horror story in this novel about an English family that goes to live in France as the father takes a sabbatical*.

However, instead of finding out the creepy mysterious goings on behind the scenes, we have humdrum descriptions of what life is like with three small daughters.

Instead of getting on with the action, the author (who obviously has first-hand experience of coping with young children) cannot resist putting the brats on center stage.

That explains Beans, the baby, (I kid you not, this is the name). For example, “Want toatso,” Beans repeated, banging the table.” Alicia's contributions include “Tammy, hit me with her elbow, Mummy. Really hard.”

I won't elaborate on what Tammy has to say but meanwhile, in the background, lurks a retarded psychopath French peasant called Jean-Luc who hammers nails into a doll.

Sounds like Stephen King meets Peter Mayle. What is Jean-Luc up to and what is going to do?

I never learned because Beans, Alicia and Tammy just kept getting in the way and I got out of their way.

*In the Internet age does this ring true? “The Mallinsons had advertised in History Today, the Times Higher Education Supplement and the London Review of Books. France: Two Cambridge academics and their three well-behaved girls seek quiet rustic house in South for six-month sabbatical, preferably in Languedoc.”
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Dissatisfied academics Nick and Sarah Mallinson decide to take a sabbatical in France and agree to rent the house of Lucy and Alan Sandler. As they set off with their three young daughters they anticipate an exciting time for all the family during which they will both pick up the threads of their academic work. But life in France turns out to be less than idyllic and the house seems to have a dark shadow looming over it.

The characterisations of the British folk were all good. The monstrous Sandlers were brilliantly portrayed and the Mallinson family seemed very believable. The appearance of Nick's feckless son from his first marriage probably struck a chord with many parents! Unfortunately the local French were all portrayed as slightly batty or sinister.

The plot was all a bit thin and not very credible and the tone of the writing veered from farce to serious sexual violence. It was as if the writer was unsure of which direction he was headed. Also I do wonder for how much longer novels set in the present can still hark back to wartime.

And why would apparently intelligent people rent a house with a swimming pool when they have very young children who can't swim??? Obviously educated but with no common sense!

But nonetheless this was an entertaining read.
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on 31 October 2012
I had a difficult time getting into this book for all good books bring out ones own personality and this book hit on my own in different ways.
Historically, France is a bitter and arrogant small power and the writer is a Francophile! And so living here, as I have done for nearly forty years, has soured me on their attitudes vis a vis England and any foreign country that has dared belittle them. But this is a gratuitous opinion.
The other observation is in his study on the conflict within Jean Luc and how well he portrayed this character in his book along with the English family's reaction to him and to their living in France and for this Adam Thorpe, has created an excellent interpretation of human behavior of us and our own behavior in this world in which we live.
This being said, it is a very excellent book and ranks highly in my esteem of good literature.
John Gray
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on 16 November 2010
I quite enjoyed this novel, though I did get a bit lost at times. The final part was quite gruesome,although in reality did not happen as described. The characters were well portrayed,and they were what they were meant to be. The Mallinsons academic,environmentally aware,and child centred when somehow it did not impinge on their freedom.The Sandlers affected by everything and nothing.
I have read nothing of Adam Thorpe before, and certainly the blurbs on the backcover extol his virtues as a novel writer.At times I think he tried too hard, and did not allow the story to flow,as the premise for the novel was a good idea. When reading the novel I kept getting images of Strawe Dogs in my mind,though Susan George was more encouraging and aware than Sarah.
A good read ,but needs a certain degree of perseverance to finish.
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'The house is massive. Three floors of trouble. His father remembered its farming days, and it was trouble then. But all farms are trouble, Papa. We're not talking farms.'

The prologue is written from the point of view of the sexy builder who dies roofing in the wet for the overly demanding English owners. The novel makes fun of the English and their romanticised view of French living and of primitive art. The writing and sense of time and place is superb. The contrast between the idyll and reality is exemplified by the local hunters and is well drawn. As others here have highlighted it is difficult to have sympathy for any of the characters except for the poor roofer and there are problems with the ending. Thorpe's writing is so good though that it has to be four stars.
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on 4 January 2015
Don't buy it if you are looking forward to reading about the 3 children. They are great and, for me, the only good element in the book but appear so very little
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