The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles
By Katherine Pancol
As a rule, the only crocodiles in novels dealing with the complicated lives of Parisians are the logos on Lacoste piqué-knit T-shirts. But Pancol’s literary confection, published in France in 2006 and now in English translation, features actual, breathing tetrapods—and long before they’re Hermès products. Given the book’s panoply of plot lines and characters, the crocodiles’ presence isn’t at all surprising, or even gratuitous.
The tale begins with the plight of Joséphine Cortès, a meek, frumpy medieval scholar whose unemployed husband, Antoine, has just left her for his manicurist mistress. He resurfaces as the manager of a crocodile farm in Kenya, leaving his ex in a financial muddle with two adolescent daughters to raise. Potential salvation arrives when Joséphine’s beautiful sister, Iris, who leads a chic, if vacuous, existence, comes up with a scheme whereby she’ll pay Joséphine to ghostwrite a novel set in the 12th century for which she’ll take the credit—and a star turn when it becomes an unexpected literary sensation.
As this tale unfolds, there’s a cast of thousands to meet, each with his or her own plot to twist: Joséphine’s daughters (Hortense, a sex bomb ready to detonate, and the lovable Zoé); her harridan mother, Henriette; her good-hearted stepfather, Marcel, a rich businessman conducting an affair with an employee; Philippe, Iris’s corporate lawyer husband, who’s conducting his own furtive meetings with another man. Add to the mix a British expat neighbour, Shirley, and Luca, a model-handsome scholar researching the history of tears who takes an interest in Joséphine. And we must also count the fictional characters, led by Florine, Joséphine’s rebellious young protoganist.
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, a blockbuster in Pancol’s native France, was the first instalment of her “Joséphine trilogy.” Its success isn’t surprising. A female audience is destined to lap up scenes set at Hôtel Ritz’s swimming pool, feral behaviour at a Givenchy sale, and the upbeat “I am woman, hear me roar” message, sounded as Joséphine asserts her independence. At times, the book’s English translation feels leaden, at odds with Pancol’s elegant observations, and character gridlock can overwhelm. But the modern fairy tale glides smoothly enough over 434 pages as everyone receives their just deserts. As does the reader, who feels as if she’s just consumed a box of colourful macarons: not the most nutritious fare, but so pretty and seductive, given the ingredients.