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Review: Villa Imago by Eric Marchal

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

I picked up this book because the blurb on the back of Villa Imago described Eric Marchal as the “Ken Follett français” (I don’t know why I fell for that because I’ve read some of Eric Marchal’s other books!), so I went into it expecting some kind of metaphysical, meticulously well-researched and plotted slow-burning thriller – and that is not what I got.

I don’t quite know how to describe this book. The closest I can come is by equating it to that really weird movie The Lobster – people go to a ‘villa’, or some type of hotel, to basically kill time and prepare their transitions from one life to the next (reincarnation is a really big thing in this book, so you think the author would have mentioned it before he’s two-thirds of his way through the goddamn plot). Except the main character Raphaël isn’t dead, he’s in a coma. That’s the big plot twist.

I’m not joking.

The big plot twist, which you get less than 100 pages into the novel, is that in a villa full of the spirits of the dead, Raphaël and one of the other people in the villa – Julie – are in a coma and so are trapped in the alternate universe of the spirit world.

Independent of the fact that it’s not a great plot twist and I saw it coming from, literally, page 3 of the book, it’s just not a great book. Nothing happens. All the dialogue that takes place is the characters exchanging long monologues about their life philosophies. And while that could potentially be interesting in the hands of a more sophisticated writer, in this book, it just reads like a first-year philosophy major attempting to make himself sound cleverer than he actually is. Plus, all of the characters are different variations on each other – they all blend together, to the point where I legitimately struggled to keep them apart. They’re flat, one-dimensional, and all only have one characteristic or personality trait that gets exaggerated and aped beyond the point where it’s believable, or enjoyable. One of the characters is so generous and kind that I legitimately hated her by the end of the book because "But she's nice!" was literally her entire personality. That's the only thing about her the author thought was worth mentioning, or making obvious. That was the only thing about her. Plus, the main character is so far up his own bum about how much he loves his fiancée that he actually, in all of his monologues, can’t talk about anything else. Marchal also has to emphasize at many points in the text that what he’s just had a character say is funny, because the joke did not translate off the page at all. None of these characters were enjoyable people to read.

All of this could have potentially been forgivable if it had been in the medium of a novella instead of a long novel; as it is, 200+ pages of this was just long. It went round and round in circles with nothing being added to the discourse or the story, just for the sake of elongating the book and making it 75 pages longer than it actually needed to be. And it was so annoyingly moralistic and preachy – Marchal wasn’t trying to tell a story, he was trying to make a point about Forgiveness Conquering All! Life Is Short! Love Is Complicated! Except it was neither well-written, nor well-observed, or nuanced enough to be interesting or worth reading. It was just bad preaching and bad characterization and bad writing. If I wanted a sermon on forgiveness and love, I would go to mass more often.

This isn’t Marchal’s preferred genre; he usually writes historical fiction tomes that center on multiple different characters (hence the Follett comparison, I think). And obviously this was him straying too far out of his comfort zone, too quickly – the storyline wasn’t original, and he adds nothing to it. His characters are flat, badly drawn, and never have anything interesting to say despite the fact that they never shut up. They have the same conversations over and over and over again over 234 pages, using just slightly different vocabulary. Nothing interesting or new ever happens, it’s just people revisiting the same concepts, the same ideas, and going through the same motions over and over and over again until the book mercifully ends. Maybe he was trying to make a point about the cyclical nature of reincarnation or life, but none of his characters were intelligent enough to make it, and he doesn’t write this book well enough for that point to carry much beyond my attempt to be charitable – and, again, if that is the point he’s making, maybe he should have introduced the concept of reincarnation earlier than seventy-five percent of the way through the book.

I quite like the two other books of Marchal’s I’ve read, and I’ve got two others sitting on my TBR pile – so I really hope this is a one-off, and that he goes back to being a decent writer with his next outing. Because this was just bad.

There’s a (much more flattering) French-language review of this book at a blog I like, which you can read here.

Happy reading (as long as you don't read this book),

Amélie xx

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I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.

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