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Excerpt for Chloe, Constance and Jane Austen by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Marie Vareille

Translated by Elisabeth Payne













Chloe, Constance, and Jane Austen































“It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen



Chloe

In the small library, five women sit in a circle, waiting. On a coffee table, a steaming teapot, matching teacups, a stack of flowery porcelain plates, and a huge cake oozing chocolate have been carefully laid out. The first piece of cake, already sliced, is ready to be served. It’s official: I don’t belong here.

You’re new here, but everything will be fine, you’ll see,” Elisabeth murmurs when I enter.

Of course everything will be fine. I don’t know what I should be worried about. That they physically beat me with copies of War and Peace? I discreetly study the faces of the other participants. I love Grammie Rose and I love reading, but if I’d had any idea that she was going to offer me a year’s membership to a book club for my birthday, I would have subtly guided her towards a Sephora voucher for makeup or perfume. I have no desire to wind up stuck with five old maids who are all Proust fanatics and probably speak like the French Academy dictionary.

Still, I politely say hello and collapse into a flowery armchair. Elisabeth serves me a cup of tea amidst a respectful silence. The five ladies introduce themselves, reciting their favorite genres, authors, and novels. A good five minutes go by, and I wedge myself further into the embroidered cushions, teacup in hand. Maybe this club won’t be as bad as I thought. Elisabeth turns to me:

Your turn to introduce yourself, Chloe.”

Well… my grandma signed me up, because, well, I love reading. I write a bit too… at least, I’d like to, and…”

You write?!” exclaims Monique, a voluptuous woman with bleached blonde hair.

I bite my lip. I don’t know what I was thinking, bringing that up.

A bit. I mean, it was more before. In fact I…”

“Me too! I wrote a book!”

She takes a neon pink booklet out of her bag and hands it to me. The cover would give any graphic designer a heart attack, even if they were a beginner. It depicts a woman with a plunging neckline swooning in the arms of a swarthy, shirtless man wearing a skull and crossbones bandana. The image, along with the title Kidnapped by the Pirate in crimson letters, would be trivial enough for the genre, if it weren’t for the flying saucer in the top left corner hurtling towards the two protagonists.

It looks… original,” I say, taken aback.

Do you want to buy it? I’ll sign it for you if you take it. It’s only 10 euros for members of the book club.”

The doorbell rings, and Elisabeth disappears. Monique takes advantage of this interruption to get out her pen and start writing “For Chloe” on the flyleaf. I can’t escape from Kidnapped by the Pirate. I take out 10 euros from my purse under the bemused looks of the other participants, who undoubtedly have their own autographed copies on their nightstands.

Hello. Sorry I’m late.”

The girl who’s just walked in looks a bit younger than me. Her hair looks like she’s stuck her fingers in a plug socket, and she’s wearing a pair of tasseled pumps that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. She hurriedly unbuttons her jacket and nearly knocks over the coat stand while hanging it up.

Our eyes meet. She stops in her tracks, still holding her scarf.

“We’ve met before, right?”

I’m usually pretty good with faces, but hers doesn’t ring a bell.

“No, I don’t think so.”

This is our second recruit,” says Elisabeth. “Constance Delahaye. Constance, I’ll let you introduce yourself. We’ve already gone around the table.”

Constance turns red, clearly uncomfortable being the center of attention, and carefully sits on a pouffe before accepting the tea Elisabeth offers her.

Hi, I’m Constance Delahaye. I’m 26, and I’m delighted to have been accepted into your book club. I’ve loved reading since I was a little girl. My favorite author is—”

You like reading?” interrupts Monique. Say what you will about Monique’s literary talent, she’s an excellent businesswoman.

“Er, yes, that’s what I just…”

If you like reading, you absolutely have to read Kidnapped by the Pirate,” she says, getting a second copy out of her bag. “You’ll love it.”

Constance opens her mouth, completely thrown. She tentatively takes the pink booklet and studies the cover, eyebrows furrowed.

I don’t have my glasses on—is that a UFO?”

Yes! It’s a romance that combines love, science fiction, and piracy with a strong erotic dimension. It’s very original. You’ll see.”

Great. A porno on Mars with pirates. Just what I was looking for. In the blink of an eye, Monique has already pulled out a pen. In her haste, she nearly knocks over Constance’s tea, which I only just manage to catch.

That’ll be 10 euros,” she says, not even apologizing.

Right. Finish up your business so that we can move onto more serious matters,” Elisabeth says impatiently. “Constance and Chloe, as you’ve just joined, I suggest that you pick the reading for next week. Then we’ll discuss this week’s reading with a slice of that excellent chocolate lava cake Evelyn brought.”

I get the feeling that Elisabeth is more excited by the prospect of cake than the discussion. I turn to Constance, ready to debate what book to read.

Jane Austen,” she declares. “She’s my favorite author. I propose Emma.”

I’ve never read Jane Austen. To be honest, I’ve never wanted to read Jane Austen.

Great. That’s decided then,” Elisabeth says, clearly delighted with Constance’s choice.

I was going to suggest American Psycho,” I say, raising my hand and hoping for some support from the others.

An embarrassing silence follows my proposal.

“Let’s vote,” says Elisabeth diplomatically.

I lose six to one, but I can’t hide my irritation. After all, they asked for my opinion too.

“Why Jane Austen?”

Constance looks at me as if I’ve asked why two and two make four.

Why Jane Austen? Because she’s an extraordinary writer who provides an extremely detailed analysis of the Georgian society of her era through her absolutely wonderful books.”

Don’t you think it’s a bit outdated and old-fashioned today? For a lot of people, Jane Austen was an old woman stuck in the countryside who wrote mushy novels because she didn’t have anything better to do.”

Monique lets out a horrified sound that resembles the squeaking of an unoiled garage door. In the silence that ensues, I realize that I’ll have to watch my tongue, because instead of War and Peace, they could very well beat me with copies of Pride and Prejudice. Even Elisabeth seems lost for words.

Constance’s brown eyes turn black, but she doesn’t have time to retort (or strangle me) before Elisabeth takes back control and declares authoritatively, “Let’s move on to today’s reading. We’ll discuss next week’s reading again when we’ve all had a chance to read Emma.”

She places a novel on the table. I study the dark cover featuring a gray tie, and I wonder if it’s a joke.

Following Monique’s suggestion last week after she managed to get the book in English, we read Fifty Shades of Gray by E.L. James for our discussion today,” Elisabeth begins. “I suggest that we each start by giving our opinion of the book; Chloe and Constance, this will give you a chance to see how things normally run.”

Monique claps and starts talking before anyone else can get a word in edgewise.

I’d already read it, but I suggested this book last week because I just love it! I couldn’t put it down; it’s so sexy and romantic. I read all three volumes in three days. Since then, I haven’t been able to read anything else. It was too intense.”

Swept away with her own enthusiasm and pink from excitement, Monique jumps up, narrowly missing toppling the tables and teapots once again.

A long silence follows her enthusiastic outburst.

I thought it was vulgar, poorly written, obscene, and stupid,” one of the ladies says primly, taking offense and straightening in her chair.

Me too, I hated it. The commercial success of this book is outrageous,” Elisabeth says.

Suddenly, everyone starts talking at once about how crap the book is.

Monique sits back down, pissed off, and I feel a pang of empathy for her.

Every time I suggest the reading, it’s the same thing,” she says to me privately. “Everyone says it sucks.”

Well, obviously. You only suggest trashy romances that aren’t of any interest to those who are truly passionate about literature, like we are,” the neighbor on her right says nastily.

The real and phony lovers of literature start to squabble, and I give Monique a contrite smile.

What about our newcomers? They’re very quiet—they must be shy. Have you read it?”

I’m not shy, actually, but I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Gray. That said, I decide to come to Monique’s rescue, who is fighting a lonely battle against snobbery from her Louis XV chair.

Yeah, I read it. I thought it was nice,” I say, crossing my arms defiantly.

I doubt that “nice” is the appropriate term to describe an erotic romance with S&M tendencies between a billionaire and a bewildered teenager, but it’s the only thing that came to mind.

So the ladies turn to Constance, whose face turns a scarlet red above her shirt collar.

Yes… I… I… no. No, I haven’t read it.”

I don’t believe her for a second. She’s so uncomfortable that she’s obviously lying. That’s right: five hundred thousand copies sold and only seventeen French people who will admit to having read it. I’m a little annoyed at Constance for not backing me and Monique up. I accepted her goddamned Jane Austen, didn’t I?!

On the subway home, I curiously take a peek at Kidnapped by the Pirate. Actually, Monique was the one who I thought was the nicest. But I doubt that Constance Delahaye, Jane Austen, and I will be friends.



Constance Delahaye’s Diary



September 14, 2011 - 10:47 PM

I made a new friend today: Chloe Lacombe. I met her at my first book club session, and we hit it off immediately. It’s funny actually, because I’m sure I’ve seen her before. I just can’t remember where.

I got there late, thanks to my mom, who called just as I was leaving the office.

“You’ll never guess who I just bumped into at Monoprix?!”

She does this every week. I know very well who she bumped into at the grocery store.

“Anthony!” she cries into the phone without even giving me time to reply.

She bumps into Anthony at least once a week. If it’s not at Monoprix, it’s at the cinema, the cheese shop, or the bakery. Once, she even saw him at the podiatrist. It’s enough to make you wonder if she’s not doing it on purpose. It’s the same old song every time. Why aren’t you with Anthony anymore? He’s such a nice man, you were so good together, an eight-year relationship, it’s such a shame… If she could have chosen between me and him when we broke up, I’m convinced she would have picked him. It’s a shame that she wasn’t able to, really, because it would have given me a break.

It’s been over a year since Anthony decided to move in with our neighbor. Moving into the apartment opposite took him less than half an hour. He’s always been incredibly lazy and very practical. If he had fallen in love with a girl from Bordeaux down south, we would probably still be together. Organizing a move any further than across the hall would have been well above his capabilities. And to think that bitch asked me to water her plants while she was on holiday! If I’d have known, I would have drowned her bonsai in mineral spirits. Anyway, Anthony is in the past, apart from in my mom’s obsessive mind. I am now a perfectly happy, independent woman, renting a sixty-square-foot Parisian studio in the fifteenth arrondissement.

I let my mom sing Anthony’s praises for fifteen minutes while I scrolled through my colleague Mylene’s holiday photos on Facebook, when a statement more absurd than any of the others made me sit up.

It’s time for you to move on. We were talking about it just the other day, me and Aunt Marthe—”

Wait… what?” I was so surprised that I raised my voice, making my colleagues look up. It was the first time she had said something like that. She had always badgered on about Anthony. The neighbor? It’s just a fling, surely. I should cling onto him like a mussel to its rock; you have to fight to win back your man; blah blah blah and blah blah blah.

“Yes, we were saying that you need to meet other people, for example.”

Then she took it upon herself to give me advice about dating, and suddenly, I don’t know why, I got angry.

I need to get over it?! It’s been over a year since I last saw Anthony! Anthony is old news! I’ve gotten over it just fine, no thanks to you, who bring it up every five minutes. I don’t need your advice, and if I never talk to you about my life again, this is exactly why!”

I hung up on her. Not because I lost my temper, but because my boss turned up at that moment, and I was already the center of attention in the open space office. I’ve already been discarded like an old sock. Best to avoid getting fired as well.

It’s totally ridiculous. I got over Anthony ages ago. I never think of him. I mean, hardly ever. I’ve only been on his Facebook page twice since the start of the week, and it’s already Tuesday. OK, so I haven’t met anyone since Anthony. In fact, I’ve been stuck in No Sex Land for nearly a year and a half. But it’s not because I’m not over it. It’s because I’m focusing on my career. Besides, who says you should get over a heartbreak in two years?! If I want to consign myself to No Sex Land for fifteen years, that’s my prerogative. Certainly not Aunt Marthe’s.

I make loads of effort to meet new people. Like the book club, for example. I could very well meet the perfect man there. OK, so there are only women, but I couldn’t have known that. I mean, it’s not like I was going to call up and ask, “So, how many single men are there in this book club? Yes, of course I’m coming for the books, but you never know…”

So I arrived late because of Mom. I love the place: a small library in an apartment on rue Saint-Jacques; we drink tea out of china cups and eat cake whilst discussing books. Chic and calorific… What’s not to love?!

Today’s book was Fifty Shades of Gray. Everyone said it was poorly written, trash, obscene, and whatever, except Monique and Chloe Lacombe. Monique because she really loved it, and Chloe because, without wanting to be mean, completely misunderstood the point. Considering her arguments during the debate, I wondered if she’d even read it. Personally, I preferred to say that I hadn’t read it, so as not to cause a ripple on my first visit. No one caught on.

Chloe and I had to choose the reading for next week. I suggested Emma. The great thing about Jane Austen is that everyone loves her. I quickly convinced Chloe, and I’m sure that as soon as she’s finished Emma, it’ll be love at first read. No one can resist Jane Austen. Take me, for example. I’m completely over Anthony, but not Pride and Prejudice. At the age of fifteen and a half, Jane Austen helped me to discover my dream job. As I closed her book, I said to myself: when I grow up, I’m going to be Elizabeth Bennet.

Tonight was really enriching. We even have a writer in the group, and she signed my book for me. I mostly bought it to make her happy—the cover is totally ridiculous—but I’ll offer it to my colleague Mylene, she loves that kind of genre.

I can’t wait to talk about Jane Austen with Chloe. I really think that she and I will be good friends.



12:08 PM

I’ve just remembered where I’ve seen Chloe. It came to me just as I was falling asleep. It was about ten days ago, in a café near Sainte-Marthe Square. She caught my eye because she was with a man in his thirties who was quite handsome, and they were making out like teenagers over their lattes. They made a cute couple. I thought to myself: that’s the kind of relationship I want. The kind of relationship where we drink coffee in the middle of the afternoon because we’ve just got out of bed and we’re looking for an excuse to spend a bit more time together.

It struck me because fifteen minutes after Chloe left, a very elegant blonde entered the café. She walked towards the table where the man was reading his newspaper. She tenderly placed a hand on his shoulder, and I said to myself, “Hm, maybe it’s his sister.” Then she leaned in and kissed him right on the mouth. It was a kiss straight out of a movie. The man smiled and folded his paper, and the woman sat down opposite him. He raised a hand to catch the server’s attention and ordered another two lattes.

That’s why I remember Chloe Lacombe.



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For fans of Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes, Helen Fielding and Emily Giffin



Chloe is the perfect Parisian: she’s too skinny, smokes too much, and drinks too much. She also has the bad habit of getting into toxic relationships, particularly with her ex Guillaume who is engaged to another woman. Her friend Constance, however, is a hopeless romantic, spends all her money on Jane Austen memorabilia yet is unable to find her Mr. Darcy.



One day, the two friends make a bet: Chloe will spend one year in the countryside, far from men and temptations, to finally write the novel she has always dreamed of; Constance will let go of her foolish dreams of romance and start hooking up with perfect strangers.



From Paris to Bordeaux vineyards to London, this bet will have completely unintended consequences.









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