by Justine MAGAUD BONILLA
The health context we are experiencing has been holding us back for several months in making plans to travel. In March 2020, during the first lockdown in France, I discovered Virginie Grimaldi and her novel « Chasing the Stars » (in French: « Il est grand temps de rallumer les étoiles »). From my sofa, with no plans for immediate departure abroad, the author took me on a road trip to Scandinavia with her characters.
The French title of the book refers to a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire which is a prologue to « Les Mamelles de Tirésias ». Written during the First World War, at the heart of the horror of the trenches, this poem is meant to be a message of hope for the future. The war even kills the constellations, it must stop so they can shine again.
Published in 2018, the novel « Chasing the stars » is a travel diary. Three characters speak in turn: a mother and her two daughters. Anna is a 37-year-old waitress, a single mother overwhelmed by work to the point where she hardly ever sees her daughters, Chloe (17) and Lily (12). While she is burdened with unpaid bills, she is laid off. Her daughter Chloe, despite being a good student, decides not to finish her high school diploma and chooses instead to work to help her mother’s finances. While mother-daughter relations are strained, Anna, though anxious and not a very spontaneous person, decides to borrow her father’s motor home and use the money she received when she was fired to take her daughters on a trip. The three women thus take the road towards the Scandinavian countries. While the teenage girls are skeptical at the beginning of the trip, family ties are strengthened as the kilometers roll by. « If you can’t go back, you can choose another way.”
The landscapes are described with such precision that when we turn the last page, we have the feeling of having already been to Scandinavia, of having admired the Northern Lights, walked in the snow, seen whales, travelled with a group of camper van drivers and eaten Northern specialties. When Chloe writes « We had just been knocked out by the beauty of the world », we also feel it for having experienced it through her descriptions. We see the world through the eyes of Anna and her daughters and we connect with their characters, forgiving their weaknesses as we discover their stories and traumas.
Lily fills our hearts with positive thoughts, seen through her innocent eyes. She befriends Noé, a young autistic child traveling in the group of campers joined by the family. In her diary, she testifies her kindness towards the boy: “I remember when his father told us that he was different, he was wrong. He’s not different, he’s better.” Her idealistic view of the world clashes with the caution and realism of adults: “I told my mother that I want to work with whales in the future. She laughed. I don’t know at what age you lose your dreams, but I hope I never get there.”
Under its aura of a feel good novel, many subjects of society are covered. Like 2.1 million French people in 2017, Anna is from a working poor, struggling to pay for those end of month. Lily is, like 10% of schoolchildren, a victim of school harassment. Noé suffers from autism, like 60,000 French people. The novelist also tackles the heavy subject of domestic violence, which led to the murder of 146 women in France in 2019.
At a time when the mood in France is being damaged by health restrictions, when anxiety provoking announcements multiply, and when travel is difficult to foresee, we, like Anna, would like to leave to travel without worrying and to disconnect from the reality of the world. If the novel may seem idealistic, it brings us joy, distracts us from our ideas and reminds us of the pleasure of being free, happy and surrounded by those we love. It tells us about the importance of the family, the beauty of the world, and gives us faith in humanity. It makes us laugh, surprises us, inspires us. It reminds us that the most important thing in life is to pursue happiness and not to let fear and difficulties determine our destiny. I can only encourage you to discover the universe of this author who, at 44 years old, has already published 6 novels, each one more powerful than the other.
Justine MAGAUD BONILLA