Review: ‘The Balcony’ is riveting debut fiction


“The Balcony” (Little, Brown and Co.), by Jane Delury

A limestone manor, surrounded by fields and forests not far from Paris, is the main setting for “The Balcony,” a subtly crafted and richly rewarding debut book of fiction by Jane Delury.

This cover image released by Little, Brown and Company shows “The Balcony,” by Jane Delury. (Little, Brown and Company via AP)

With a servants’ cottage tucked nearby, the once-grand estate emerges as a central presence in the narrative, looming large in the passions and destinies of a changing cast of characters that own it or visit it over a century.

Delury’s book unfolds in 10 separate stories, each with its own title. While they work as compact, remarkable tales in themselves, they connect through characters and events — and the manor and its environs — to create a riveting free-form novel.

This narrative structure — stand-alone stories woven around a central figure — is reminiscent of “Olive Kitteridge,” Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of stories built around the title character. It is no stretch to mention Delury and Strout in the same sentence: Delury’s debut book, with wise observations, intriguing twists and indelibly drawn characters, is filled with reading pleasures.

A possible flaw is Delury’s change of stylistic gears in the final story, “Between.” It echoes themes of the book’s first, “Au Pair,” with a young married woman finding a lover on the side, but it is told in a stilted framework that may be confusing and jarring to the reader.

The other stories, related in spare but evocative prose, offer fresh looks at human appetites — sex, love, money, art, culture — while exploring the ups and downs of childhood, family, friendship and aging, mostly in France but with American and other foreign touches flecking the narrative.

One story, “Ants,” is a gentle and superb beach drama framing a young teen girl’s coming-of-age experience. Another, “The Pond,” is a gripping, very different coming-of-age story about two young brothers, a secret and courage.

“The Balcony” is an American’s love letter to France — a bit prickly, for sure, and a compelling saga spanning France’s past century, a period in which the manor, ravaged by wars and time, survives as a silent witness.