Excerpt from The Balcony by Jane Delury, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Balcony

by Jane Delury

The Balcony by Jane Delury X
The Balcony by Jane Delury
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2018, 256 pages
    Mar 2019, 256 pages

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Emily Isackson
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Print Excerpt


In June of 1992, I left Boston for France with everything in front of me. For the next two months, I would be an au pair to Hugo and Olga Boyer's daughter, Élodie, at their country estate near Paris. The position came to me through my advisor at Boston University, where I'd just finished a master's degree in French and where Hugo would join the faculty in the fall. As Olga explained to my advisor, who asked me if I was interested, she and Hugo needed a jeune fille to help Élodie practice her English and to watch her mornings while Hugo worked on his book and Olga prepared the house for their departure. I would have a large, sunny room on the top floor and my afternoons and most of the weekends off. "Paris, with all of its delights, is only a brief train ride away," Olga wrote to me in French, her hand- writing large and baroque. "Élodie is an easy child, and her father and I are not monsters." With the money I'd make, I could spend a third month in Paris and then see how I might stay on in France, where I believed I was meant to live.

When my advisor had mentioned a country estate, I imagined periwinkle shutters and roads lined with plane trees, fields of poppies and sunflowers, a village of church bells and cobblestone streets. Though I'd only been to Paris and to Nice, I thought I had an understanding of the French countryside, informed by the paintings of the impressionists and by novels such as Madame Bovary. The village of Benneville, however, turned out to be an industrial wash of smokestacks and faceless apartment buildings that ringed a center of ratty stucco storefronts. During the Second World War, Benneville had sat in the occupied zone, and the U.S. Air Force bombed the train station, missing their mark. The attack flattened the historic town center and shattered the church's stained-glass windows, now replaced by clear panes. There was the requisite monument to the wars, and the requisite square where pigeons pecked gravel around a fountain, and old people sat on benches, looking lonely. As for the Seine, that same river that glided through Paris under the Pont Mirabeau, inspiring poets and painters, looked sullen and stagnant in Benneville, the banks cluttered with factories.

The manor, as Olga referred to the house and grounds that composed the estate, was a five-minute drive from the village, protected from the surrounding ugliness by the pines and oaks of a forêt domaniale. Clearly, the house—a bourgeois manoir of buttery limestone that stretched three stories into slate turrets and gables— had once been magnificent, but it had been hastily and cheaply remodeled in the 1970s. Past the grand doors, the historic charm gave way to flocked wallpaper, chartreuse tile, and malachite linoleum. The questionable remodel hadn't been helped by Olga's predilection for knickknacks. A collection of ornate mantel clocks sat on the parlor shelves under a row of vintage perfume bottles. Ancient kitchen implements—a candle mold and poissonnière, a moulin à legumes, chalky with rust—cluttered the dining room walls.

"This is what happens when you lose everything to a war," Hugo told me as he carried my suitcase inside that first day. He skirted a stack of Turkish carpets rolled up like sausages.

"Très drôle," Olga said. "I was a single woman in an enormous house for years and years," she told me. "I needed to fill the space."

We climbed the marble waterfall of a staircase, Élodie's hand in mine. She was tiny for a four-year-old, with eyes the color of pennies and skin so pale that you could see a branch of veins on her right cheek. She'd adopted me instantly at the airport. On the drive to Benneville, she taught me the game of barbichette. She held my chin and I held hers, and the first one to laugh got a light slap on the cheek.

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Excerpted from The Balcony by Jane Delury. Copyright © 2018 by Jane Delury. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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