Renowned food writer Paul Stuart does not have much luck when it comes to love. In Alexander McCall Smith’s novel The Second-Worst Restaurant in France, Paul once again finds himself ending a relationship—this time with his editor, Gloria—and in need of a little time away from his home in Scotland. So when his eccentric cousin Chloe offers him a spot at the house she’s rented in the French countryside, he jumps at the chance. Little does he know that his escape will be anything but a gastronomic delight.
The novel is set in a fictional town near Poitiers in western France and the lush descriptions in the novel made us want to fly off to the French countryside right away. We thought it would be fun to take a closer look at some of the atmospheric elements of the novel that help inspire the setting. Enjoy!
Église Notre-Dame la Grande in Poitiers
Paul gets off the train in Poitiers and, although he doesn’t do any sightseeing in the city, for our trip, we’re taking a stop at the Église Notre-Dame la Grande. A stunning piece of Romanesque architecture, this eleventh-century church is famous for the elegant friezes depicting scenes from the Bible. In the Middle Ages, the sculptures on the church’s facade would have been painted, but today, on summer evenings and holidays, special light shows bring a more modern kind of color to the building.
We could describe the beauty of the French countryside, but author Alexander McCall Smith does it so well in this novel:
She took a hand off the wheel to point out the landscape that had opened up before them. Crops of wheat and barley stretched out to a distant horizon of low curves; here and there, small forests, irregular in shape and extent, interrupted the sweep of the land, making for dark patches against the lighter green of the fields. Lanes, almost too narrow to admit a car, hemmed in by exuberant hedgerows, ran off the main road at unpredictable angles, marked by white metal signposts bearing the name—inevitably a long one—of some tiny village. The position of those villages was given away by a church spire poking up in the middle distance, or by a cluster of red-tiled roofs.
“You could get lost so easily,” observed Chloe. “You could wander around for weeks, and end up nowhere.”
Luncheon of the Boating Party
Upon arriving at their temporary home, both Chloe and Paul, greeted with tables full of cheeses, olives, and wine, are reminded of this painting by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The painting depicts Renoir’s friends relaxing in a restaurant on the Seine—which is a long way from where Paul is staying, but reminds him of the comfortable, friendly atmosphere he is now in.
On a trip into town, Paul comes across a stone rendering of Marianne, France’s guardian since the French Revolution, with “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” inscribed upon it. In France, Marianne is the personification of the French ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and reason and is depicted in many public places as well as on official documents and currency. She is often decorated in the French colors blue, white, and red.