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The Violins of Saint-Jacques and Other Things We Can't Forget

One of my favorite reads this past summer was a fat historical family saga set on a lush Caribbean island. Sounds delicious, right? It was. I tore through it in  a single sitting and was completely transported by it. Only when I put it down did I realize it’s not fat at all—it got the job done in a mere 160 pages. Put me in mind of that delicate, multi-layered French dessert, the mille-feuille.

The French connection is particularly apt, since The Violins of Saint-Jacques takes place in what’s sometimes known as the DOM-TOM, the Départements d'outre-mer–Territoires d'outre-mer. These are the overseas regions administered by France, former colonies in the New World. More specifically, the setting is the fictitious island of Saint-Jacques in the earliest years of the 20th century, a place and time recalled by an old woman who is one of its last remaining expatriates.

Isolated in the Antilles, Saint-Jacques is a place that’s developed its own blended culture, partly ruled by Old World traditions of decorum that are occasionally flouted with an insouciant air. Political conflicts arise as the officious new governor butts heads with the established Creole families who actually run things, but the real intrigue is romantic and personal. Glances are exchanged, secret notes are passed, and everything culminates on the night of glorious masked ball that must be one of the greatest party scenes in literature.

What makes the novel such a pleasure is the way it builds its world ... continued