A young entrepreneur from a youthful Philadelphia, chances upon a French aristocrat and his family living on the edge of the frontier. Born to an unwed mother and raised by a disapproving and judgmental grandfather, he is drawn to the close-knit family. As part of his courtship of one of the patriarch’s daughters, he builds a château for her, setting in motion a sequence of events he could not have anticipated.
“All by itself, a house—however grand—is only an empty space. It is the person who counts. A man is destined to fill his home to whatever fullness it represents. It takes a big man to fill a big house and an even bigger man to fill a château. Oui, monsieur, I think this is the answer that I have for you…”
Lawrence Kraymer’s life has not been one of ease and convenience, but one where no love was lost between him and the grandfather who raised him. While it was his grandfather who built up the brewery business that was passed to him, he treated Lawrence as if he were of no relation, or even of the same status, as himself—as if he were just a common servant or slave. With his past becoming too much to bear, Lawrence takes a break to go on a hunting trip, hiring the Indian, John, to accompany him, to escape the memories that haunt him.
When John heads in a different direction, Lawrence is left to fend for himself, eventually coming across an isolated farm and seeking refuge from the coming storm. The family let him stay, offering him the shelter of the barn, a bath and a warm meal, which is more than he expected and, unbeknownst to him, turns out to be the night that would change his life forever.
Chateau Laux by David Loux is a novel of joy, devotion and heartbreak, of how one family can spread its roots to reach so many places, with so much variation, and how this family could change so many lives.
The contrast between the life Lawrence grew up in and the life he stumbles upon when he asks Pierre Laux for shelter is evident. Lawrence is used to families not being close, to his grandfather beating him as a child and parents not wanting to get too close to their children. This was a time where it was not uncommon for children to never reach adulthood and losing one you loved so much would be far too much to bear. Better to wait, keep the love restrained and concealed until it became clear whether the child would survive. The Laux family, however, seems to be the exception, a family who deeply care for each other, and Lawrence’s shock when he sees Pierre allow his youngest daughter to sit upon his knee and request a story is clear—he can’t believe that such a family, such love among relations, can exist while he grew up with none of it. It is not surprising that he wants to spend more time with them, to become a part of their family and live the life he always wished he could have.
The Laux family, while seemingly very close at the beginning, grow with the story and as children grow up, they create their own ideals, begin to realise what they want to do with their lives, and that dream is not often the same dream that their parents have for them. Pierre has a house and a farm to run, but that doesn’t mean his children want to stay and help, or even to build the beginnings of their own farms. It is Lawrence’s presence that brings these realisations, for an outsider suggests that there is an outside world, things that they do not know and that they haven’t even thought to consider before. With Catharine, Pierre’s eldest daughter, so beautiful and right for Lawrence, willing to give him the love he so desperately desires and a wife to cherish, Lawrence calls upon Pierre’s heritage, as if his construction project will cement his place in the family, to build a house for his fiancee. A château, no less. With such a vast project, the Laux sons find their own ways to help, and despite their usefulness being restrained to odd jobs at first, it is these jobs that help lead them to their futures.
While Lawrence is trying to escape his past, building a château, far from anything he knows, for his fiancee to honour her family and the new lease of life that their acquaintance has brought him, such a building does the opposite for Pierre. The château rising from the ground drags up with it memories of another building, a manoir that had once served the same purpose as Lawrence’s château. To raise a family, provide safety for children to grow and learn. Yet, Pierre’s memories are not of a happy childhood, of a château that he could call home, but of soldiers, a dying mother and the deep pit of loneliness and grief that followed him away from the building as he ran for his life. Pierre’s backstory is written with excellence and presents the very foundations of the story, while giving off a terrible sense of foreboding. History is always bound to repeat itself, and whether such a home may bring equal amounts of anguish is a thought that rests uneasy as you read, hoping that Pierre’s instincts are wrong. However, death isn’t always accompanied by soldiers and while the thought that something might not be right is at the very back of your mind, it is still there, trying to show itself and give a warning before things are too late. Time is irreversible and it is the mistakes of the past that lay the path for the future of those left to live it.
Out of all of Pierre’s children, it is Jean that caught my interest the most. Before Lawrence arrived, he had seemed content with living his life the way his father did—working the land and tending the animals—even if it went against his nature. But Jean finally speaks up about his true aspirations. To fight for what he believed in, for his life to count for something that it couldn’t if he never left home. When opportunities present themselves to him, he jumps to take them and while it only takes a little courage and a lot of luck to do one good deed, the confidence that builds is not enough to carry that luck forward. Confidence is a cunning killer and taunts its victims in, showing them the path and stabbing them in the back as they move on. The forming of a militia may offer Jean the chance to prove himself, but when the real world presents itself with a fanfare of gunshots, Jean can either step up where greater men would fall, or stand down and let lesser men lead him to his demise. What made Jean’s story so believable, such a delight to read, is that he is not perfect. He makes mistakes and he can’t deal with everything. He is the youngest of the militia, a group of untrained, ill-prepared men who don’t know what they are getting themselves into and are not ready to deal with what is thrown at them. Jean must do things he doesn’t understand, lead men when he is not ready, and it takes a toll on him. Loux clearly has a wonderful understanding of human fragility and a novelist eye of how to present people in such a compelling, impressive narrative that it is next to impossible to put this book down.
The poetic turn of phrase and such elegance deserves recognition, for it is not just a novel that Loux has penned, but a masterpiece, a rose among thorns, a château among farmhouses. With such a keen sense of human life and emotion, Chateau Laux by David Loux brings to life a story that threatens to mesmerise with scenes of pure, unrestrained delight and scenes that will pull at your heartstrings and have you reaching for the tissues.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Ellie Yarde
The Coffee Pot Book Club
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David Loux is a short story writer who has published under pseudonym and served as past board member of California Poets in the Schools. Chateau Laux is his first novel. He lives in the Eastern Sierra with his wife, Lynn.