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No Place to Hide

Cameras and celebrities aren’t the only things flashing in this suspenseful novel about Cannes
by Michael Sims

By Sara Voorhees

In her debut novel, Sara Voorhees manages to have her cake and eat it too. Natalie Conway, her narrator, immediately earns our admiration for having rejected celebrity journalism as crass and predatory. Yet her knowledge of it makes her an entertaining safari guide when she has to return to the hunt. Voorhees understands that our attitude toward celebrities varies from a desire to touch the hem of their garments to an ignoble satisfaction in their godly tribulations. If they’re going to be rich and famous, we think—if we made them rich and famous–then surely it’s only fair that they grow into Botoxed druggies whose children hate them.

But Voorhees, a celebrity journalist herself, doesn’t permit such attitudes to infect her smoothly paced and quick-witted storytelling. The Lumiere Affair is not about Cannes or celebrityhood; it only takes place against the backdrop of this setting and theme. The novel is nicely difficult to categorize. It’s a detective story without a detective and a family saga with most of the family either dead or missing in action. For light entertainment, it’s impressively vivid, and Natalie Conway is a charming and resourceful narrator. When a damsel in distress needs rescuing, for example, it is Conway who saves her.

The book begins as Conway's now paltry income leaves her unable to refuse an offer from her former boss, who asks her to fill in at the last minute for another reporter. Her assignment? The Cannes Film Festival. Surprisingly, Conway balks. The rent is due, and lately she has discovered the freelancer’s I’ll-write-anything desperation—as demonstrated by her recent article for a gun magazine, “The Lady Learns to Love Her Glock.” But she has never been to Cannes and doesn’t want to go. And why would an intrepid celebrity hound have resisted the annual carnival in France? Therein lies the emotional core of this story. Conway spent her early childhood in France. Her first memories are situated there—and they’re terrifying.

In plotting this novel, Voorhees seems to have taken from Lolita Humbert Humbert's sly aside about his mother’s death ("picnic, lightning") and employed it as the key event in Conway's past. Her mother too was struck by lightning during an al fresco lunch, atop a French mountain, as were young Natalie herself and her mother's boyfriend, Michael Claudel. Claudel was barely harmed. Conway bears a livid scar across her abdomen, "ten tiny lines running across it like half a railroad track headed nowhere."

One of the first things she learned after returning to consciousness is that her mother was killed. Sent to Arizona to live with her father, she was forbidden—thanks to her mother's affair with Claudel—even to mention the maternal name. The mother, a mythic figure in the little girl's mind, was an actress, protégé of the director Jacques Vidanne, who is now famous and in Cannes to promote his new film.

So naturally the adult Conway goes to Cannes, and naturally she looks up her mother's old flame. He is handsome, charming and disconcertingly candid about both the virtues and vices of Natalie's mother. Soon he is inspiring Natalie to dig further into the questions surrounding her mother's death. Claudel likes to cite Balzac, correctly or not, as the source for all his favorite epigrams, including the Charlie Chan-ish remark, "A guilty man reveals himself before suspicions have begun to flower." Together they pursue the mysterious Vidanne.

Unlike many first novelists, Sara Voorhees seems to have had a lot of fun writing this book. There is a likable playfulness throughout. For example, as chapter epigraphs she quotes remarks from movies–from The Matrix to All About Eve–and advice from safety organizations about how to avoid lightning. Often the quotation’s ironic relevance is apparent only after you read the chapter.

Herself a renowned film critic and celebrity interviewer, Voorhees knows the boring routine as well as the glamorous photo–ops and the ego–driven turf wars from limousine to wading pool. She mixes real and fictional celebrities and movies into the flash–lit vanityfest of Cannes. It would take a more film–savvy reviewer to catch all the inside jokes, but details about these household names seem convincing. Cameron Diaz passes by, for example, smelling of gardenias, and omniscient Google confirms that Diaz does wear gardenia–scented perfumes. Quentin Tarentino is in Cannes to promote his new movie Bloodbath. Other stars onscreen include Bruce Willis and Johnny Depp.

Voorhees boasts a rare talent: she is genuinely surprising. Just when you think she is about to fall into some kind of Hollywood thriller cliche, she deftly sidesteps it and continues the story in her own quirky manner. And the book is relentlessly quirky, as Conway pursues Vidanne and finds herself increasingly drawn to Michael Claudel. Voorhees weaves through her story a running theme of the unreliable cinematic flourishes of memory, a subtext that naturally proves relevant to the plot.

She plays most of Conway's fear of weather as comedy, but there is a serious side to having been slapped down by the gods. "After you've been struck by a bolt of lightning," she sighs, "you know something that no one else can understand: there’s no place to hide." Nor can the truth hide from Natalie Conway, even when she reaches the point of wanting it to. This book isn't marketed as a "mystery novel," but enigmas abound in it, and they are resolved in unpredictable ways. Almost every person in Natalie Conway’s life has been lying to her about something—and, not surprisingly, she has been lying to herself.