Authors: Diane Johnson
Also by Diane Johnson
Health and Happiness
The Shadow Knows
Loving Hands at Home
Terrorists and Novelists
an imprint of
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in the United States of America by Penguin Putnam Inc., 2003
First published in Great Britain by Michael Joseph 2004
Copyright © Diane Johnson, 2003
The moral right of the author has been asserted
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of
the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living
or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved
Without limiting the rights under copyright
reserved above, no part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior
written permission of both the copyright owner and
the above publisher of this book
To Carolyn Kizer,
who introduced me
to Prince Kropotkin and
My grateful thanks to the many people who helped me with ideas and information, moral support, and advice with the manuscript – patient friends, John Beebe, Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, Robert Gottlieb, Diana Ketcham, Carolyn Kizer, Alison Lurie and John Murray. Also to Dr Alain Gruber, who knows about the moon-bleaching of tablecloths, and CK Williams for putting me on to the Allen Tate translation of Baudelaire that I have attributed to Robin Crumley. Many thanks too for the wonderful support at Dutton from the editors Carole Baron and Laurie Chittenden.
I should note that French inheritance laws, often revised, may have changed in some details by the time of publication.
It is because America has consented neither to sin
nor to suffering that she has no soul
– André Gide
The destiny of France is to irritate the world
– Jean Giraudoux
Les Affaires? C’est bien simple.
C’est l’argent des autres
– Alexandre Dumas fils
All of Europe had been fascinated for the past few days by televised images of avalanches descending in the wake of storms on certain ski resorts and pretty villages in the Alps. Caught for the screen by cameramen safely distant, the snowy plumes were as beautiful as waterfalls or clouds, and thrilling, too, in that it always stirs the human heart to watch nature assert her propensity for malicious destruction.
Despite the usual preventive measures taken with dynamite and seismograph, some ancient chalets were engulfed completely, some modern structures of concrete were imploded in a bizarre fashion never before studied. In one place, inhabitants were killed with the power of a tidal wave or volcano; in others, the possibility of life beating faintly in an air pocket under an eave stimulated massive rescue efforts organized from the Austrian, Italian, and Swiss Alpine patrols as well as the local French ones. Yet, with characteristic resolve, ski lifts stayed open when they could, and skiers, having booked their precious
, still ventured resolutely out onto the slopes that were open.
Unaware for the moment of the dangers at the higher reaches, Amy Ellen Hawkins, a dotcom executive from Palo Alto, California, had defied the usual injunction never to ski alone. She was trying out new parabolics, an
innovation since she had last been on the slopes, and she had thought she had time for a run or two while the light was good, even though the snow was already falling. In the several days she had been here, the terrible weather had mostly impeded any skiing at all, and now that her jet lag had worn off, she was too restless and eager to stay indoors any longer.
Amy was an experienced skier, but wished to be better. She had chosen the Hôtel Croix St Bernard in Valméri, France, for a couple of weeks’ stay as part of a personal program of self-perfection, an almost superstitious way of placating the gods for her recent good fortune. Humbly, she would seek mastery of deferred skills like skiing, cooking, and speaking French, and she saw no reason she should not approach them with the discipline and effectiveness that had marked her career in the decade since she left college.
By the time Amy reached the top of the chair lift that swayed up the mountain above the hotel, the cell phones of the liftmen still higher above were crackling with warnings. Visibility had already deteriorated markedly, the new sort of ski turned out to have an independent wish to turn despite her, requiring an effort of understanding she had not expected, and the terrain was steeper than an intermediate/advanced slope would be at Squaw Valley, with strange intervals when she could not determine whether she was going down or up – not a whiteout exactly, but an eerie one-dimensional landscape that seemed to have no undulations or contours. A cool-headed person, she kept her nerve, reminding herself of the reassuring facts of gravity. If she was sliding, she must be going downhill,
and she allowed her skis to carry her. Now, face stung with snow, she was just thankful to have finally made her way in the failing light down the difficult slope on which she had found herself and was stashing her skis by the entrance to the ski room at the Hôtel Croix St. Bernard, shaken and sobered by this immediate lesson and suddenly aware of the reverberations of what sounded like dynamite in the distance.
She saw that though it was still early afternoon, many people had come in already, forty pairs of skis or more were wedged into the wooden grid, poles jammed into the deepening snow. (The amenities of the hotel included the van from the station, a ski room where boots were warmed, a technician, and the custom of arranging the guests’ skis outside next to the ski run in the mornings.) Unlike Amy, the other guests seemed mostly to be Europeans and must know something about the weather that she had missed. She looked back at the slope she had just struggled down, now hardly visible in the snowfall, and it occurred to her she had narrowly escaped death.
‘Miss Hawkins!’ It was the man who had been referred to as ‘the baron’ who was greeting her, scraping the snow-packed bottoms of his boots against his bindings and frowning at her. She knew who he was, but was startled that he knew her name. With her good memory for faces, she had already begun to sort out the people who had been in the hotel van with her coming up from Geneva, or in the ski room when she got outfitted. This was an Austrian, or maybe German, baron. Also in the ski room this morning had been an English publisher and his family, an American man – Joe, a pair of elderly women
from Paris, and two Russian couples she had not spoken to. Most of the people at the hotel were French or Germans, mysteriously alien, to her great satisfaction.
‘People have come in early,’ she said, feeling herself flush at being faced with this censorious person. Amy sometimes felt reticent, though she was not timid. Her success in corporate life had come about the way some actors who stammer and blush in private life come to power and authority onstage. In private, her sweet smile was found pliant and endearing. She was also modest and sociable and, now, surprisingly rich, as had happened to not a few in her same year at Stanford.
‘Indeed. The warnings are posted everywhere.’ The baron rolled his eyes at the hopeless naïveté of her observation, from his expression wondering if in behalf of local tourism he ought to take this woman in charge. ‘Didn’t you see them? They’re written in English as well as French.’
‘Oh yes, of course, I hurried in, but I wasn’t sure of the route,’ she said. She was still shaken by her adventure, and by the fact that she hadn’t seen the warnings, though she had scrupulously read the posted times for closing of the lift she had been on, not wanting to miss the last ascent. She usually didn’t make mistakes, it was a point with her. She was also a little irritated by his suggestion that signs would have to be written in English for her to understand them.
Of course that was more or less true. She was about to protest that, A. she could read French, somewhat, and B. thank you, but her tendency to reject authority didn’t extend to ignoring posted warnings about avalanches,
any more than sharks or riptides, she simply hadn’t seen them. Instead, she said nothing, and smiled her pretty, candid smile.
‘The pistes are plainly marked.’ His tone was still censorious. Her kind of beauty, he was thinking, was peculiarly American, the beauty lent to a face by an optimist’s temperament. Optimism however unwarranted. He could see she was a person with high hopes. In looks she might also have been an Austrian
, with her thick braid of caramel-colored hair, bright cheeks, and a dimpled face of unusual sweetness. Her half-breathless alert quality must come from an awareness of the constant possibility that her high hopes could be dashed. It was essential in his line of work, property development, to be good at reading faces and perceiving dashed hopes.
The Croix St Bernard was a cheerful, fashionably simple, family-run hotel with some of the affectations, and prices, of a grand one, quiet and discreet, standing apart to one side of the central pistes on a road of private chalets, distant from the après-ski scene of the village itself. From hints given in the brochure, Amy had gathered that it was the choice of diplomats taking a break from Geneva, the occasional adulterous couple, well-off families with young children who like an early night, assorted Eurotrash eccentrics bored with the relentless pace found in the larger hotels, and above all, those who wanted to take the fabled cooking classes offered by the hotel’s celebrated chef. All this she had inferred from the photographs and promotional material, and thus had chosen it for her stay, for the fun of mingling with people of a kind unknown to
her. To be accurate, she didn’t choose it so much as agree to it – it had been suggested by a Madame Chastine, a Parisian connection of Amy’s friend Patricia, when Pat’s aunt and Géraldine Chastine were both at Wellesley. Amy was disappointed that her two friends Pat Davis and Marnie Skolnik, who had been coming with her for the skiing and cooking, had cancelled, each for different reasons, leaving her to come alone. But she acknowledged to herself it was probably best in the long run, as without them she would concentrate better and learn more. There was also the fact that no one knew her here, so their disapproval would not count should she do something that might shock at home – a common justification for travel.