Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

I almost set this book aside as its title and beginning chapters made me fear it would be twee and simplistic but thankfully I stayed with it and would encourage readers to do the same with this thoughtful moral fable.  The book begins with Agnès Morel, a tall, dark, slender woman known to many inhabitants of the cathedral town of Chartres as someone who “had made herself useful in the small ways that help to oil the wheels of daily life.  She was an accomplished ironer, a reliable babysitter and was known to “sit” naked for Robert Clément (the last activity making her less desirable to some in the first capacities).  She made a reputation as a conscientious cleaner.”   Agnès had arrived in Chartres twenty years previously and the cathedral’s current dean, the Abbé Paul, had found her sleeping in a porch niche. Since then she’s cleaned the church giving special attention to the famed labyrinth’s darkened paving stones that drew her there.  One of Agnès’ virtues was that she didn’t say much.  The tranquility she exhibits endears her to most of the town.

Agnès was a foundling, raised by nuns. She was bright and excelled at numbers but seemed to the nuns incapable of learning to read or write.  When she was fourteen and inexplicably pregnant, the sisters sent her off to a discreet nursing home where she bore a son who was removed from her immediately after his birth.  Agnès returned to the convent in a troubled state and spent time in psychiatric care before her move to Chartres.  As the novel wends its way back and forth between Agnès present life in Chartres and her previous sojourns, she transforms the lives of each of the people who work beside her.  Yet, as Agnès enters each life, elements of sin and moral dilemmas reveal themselves.

Agnès is ridden with anxiety especially when nasty gossip threatens to derail her quiet life. Her constant labors allow her to avoid confronting her past and she notes that “boredom is a luxury of a life lived without fear.”   Agnès’ gift is her simple, philosophical manner coupled with her droll wit which subtly captures the reader as it does the people she meets.  The second half of the book contains several mysterious circumstances that threaten Agnès and others. In this way the book is reminiscent of the book and movie Chocolat, in both setting and in the way in which Agnès seemingly arrives with the wind and alters life in the cathedral town while revealing unseemly secrets.  The novel also has the sensibility and wisdom of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  Devotees of Louise Penny’s psychological mysteries will also enjoy Vickers’s use of darkness and light to explore second chances and evil.

Francophiles and those who embrace the lessons of the labyrinth will race to read this novel but all who want a contemporary morality play and psychological drama with a discreet “aha” will cherish this savory morsel.  Vickers’s former life as a psychoanalyst surfaces in her portraits of troubled characters.

Summing it Up:  Read this subtle, yet jubilant, rumination on life, love, faith, sin, and hope held together with a bow that is Agnès, a character you won’t soon forget. Reading The Cleaner of Chartres is a bit like eating a chocolate croissant with a rich cup of coffee in a patisserie in a small French village while looking out the window on the townspeople going about their day. All you observe may not be as it seems so linger awhile and settle into its rhythm as you learn what’s behind the facade. 

Rating:  5 stars

Category: Fiction, Dessert, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Publication date: June 27, 2013

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