My favorite part of The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre, translated from French by Jordan Strump, was the aura of compassionate melancholy it created. It reminded me of a quiet, contemplative morning or a deep, thoughtful conversation–significant topics are approached, but not in crisis mode.
The main character and narrator of the book, Pierre, is a life time bartender who has worked at Le Cercle, a neighborhood cafe, for over 15 years. His current life is a set-dance with customers, employees, owners and a friend. Nothing too startling or unexpected happens in a normal week, just a series of static, caring interactions where everyone moves through his steps as the week progresses. While there is a sense of loneliness, it is tempered by Pierre’s empathetic view of world and the people in his life.
Through stream of concious narration with memories woven in, we learn that Pierre’s life hasn’t always been so calm. He suffered through substance-abuse rehabilitation and ended a few significant relationships, yet at 56 he looks at those events almost as the youthful exploits of a by-gone era. He is starting to think of retirement and the end of his life. This is the one aspect that struck me as culturally different, American culture doesn’t view 56 as a retirement age, more likely a second career age. Pierre’s thoughts and emotions seemed to mirror those of an American who was 20 years older.
Pierre’s world is rattled when the owners of Le Cercle decide to leave Paris, close the cafe, and start anew. Pierre continues to go to the cafe for another week, mostly sitting at the bar and looking at his customers visit the cafe across the street. The flap of the book stresses this change in Pierre’s life, but I think it leads the reader astray. We don’t learn what Pierre does with his life, I assume he found a similar job at a different cafe and builds a similar set of relationships. For me, the book is a portrait of man and his thoughts as he takes stock of his life. The book gave me a view of a life I wouldn’t have any other way of encountering. The sweetest aspect–Pierre is a lovely man who encounters people and events from a positive viewpoint. While quiet and reserved, he is compassionate and accepting of the people in his life. To walk in his shoes for 117 pages was bittersweet. Pierre is a character you can carry in your heart and cherish.
Dominique Fabre is a French author known for writing about people on the edge of French society, the types of people that aren’t usually given the main character role in novels. This is the first English translation of his work. Archipelago Books published The Waitress is New. Archipelago Books is a non-profit publisher that strives to enhance cross-cultural exchange by bringing foreign literature to the United States. I’m thrilled the author and the publisher gave me the opportunity to see this view of Parisian life.