Health care expert Dr Johann Serfontein is perhaps better known for his insightful and scathing commentary on national health insurance in the South African press.
In a move away from commentary on the realities of health policy, he recently published his debut fictional work, Where do you go to, under the pen name Jean Cerfontaine. The novel is based on the famous Peter Sarstedt song, half a century after it won an Ivor Novello award for musical writing.
Mesmerising from the first page, this is a beautifully written tale about a little girl who takes an unfortunate tumble from the back of a truck on a bitterly cold night in Rome in 1948, hits her head hard on the pavement and only wakes up hours later, with no recollection as to who she is or where she comes from. The girl is taken to an orphanage in Marcigliana and is given the name Marie-Claire by the Mother Superior.
The ambassador, Henri le Blanc, has been posted to Greece by the French Diplomatic Corps, and he and his wife, Josephine, are to leave Italy soon. The childless couple find Marie-Claire utterly delightful when they visit the orphanage and meet her by chance. They adopt her in the hopes of giving her a better life.
So ensues Marie-Claire’s splendid foray into the glamorous and glitzy world of the super-rich and famous.
Cerfontaine is a compelling and eloquent storyteller. The narrative is convincing, immersing the reader in the post-World War II era (1948–1969), wherein diplomats and their families played a significant role in ensuring peace and stability.
“The author cleverly leaves hints throughout the text that fuel the reader’s nagging suspicions, for surely no one is as perfect as Marie-Claire seems to be? Does she have a dark side to her, after all?”
The reader is kept engaged and curious as to Marie-Claire’s earliest years, as she continues to wake up in tears every morning, haunted by visions of pooling blood on cobblestones. Though the shadows of the past are always lurking in the background, Marie-Claire takes to her new role as the much beloved and pampered only child of the Le Blancs with alacrity – she is their pride and joy.
Recognised as a very talented and hard-working ballet dancer in Greece, she is welcomed to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy when the Le Blancs take up residency in the French embassy in Moscow.
She is groomed into the perfect diplomat’s daughter, with only the best schooling and tutors money can buy. She speaks several languages, is poised and elegant and has a natural flair for mingling with dignitaries and other high-profile people. She is well read and effortlessly holds her own in any conversation.
Marie-Claire blossoms into a social butterfly, dressed by Pierre Balmain, painted by Pablo Picasso and adored by His Highness Aga Khan. Only the best is good enough for her – expensive shopping trips, lavish parties, leisurely holidays at exquisite destinations all over Europe, and a penthouse apartment off the Boulevard Saint-Michel in the Latin Quarter, from where she, a very talented art student, later on attends the Sorbonne in Paris.
“The beautiful cover also only shows her back, and not her face. This is possibly why the author, at times, tells and does not show.”
From all appearances, beautiful Marie-Claire leads a perfect life. The elite welcome her unreservedly in their social circles – in fact, a party is not a party if Marie-Claire is not attending. Rich and famous in her own right as an adult, she still makes a point of thanking her adoptive parents often for rescuing her from the orphanage and giving her such a good life.
The author cleverly leaves hints throughout the text that fuel the reader’s nagging suspicions, for surely no one is as perfect as Marie-Claire seems to be? Does she have a dark side to her, after all? Or is she really just extremely lucky to have been handed the kind of life everyone dreams of on a silver platter?
The reader is in for a treat, with rich descriptive prose that marvellously captures beautiful settings and landmarks, ranging from the Vatican to the French Riviera, as well as St Moritz, Monaco and the famous Gorky Park in Moscow.
Cerfontaine describes even the simplest of meals enjoyed in fancy restaurants in connoisseurial terms. He makes liberal use of back-and-forth time jumps and letters that Marie-Claire writes to acquaintances over the years to successfully balance condensed period detail and colour in the background.
He explores the liminal spaces – eg past and present, formal embassies and a Rolling Stones concert in the catacombs beneath Paris, etc – through which the main character moves with notable ease.
Marie-Claire never truly convinced me as a multidimensional character, but then the song also depicts her as elusive. The beautiful cover also only shows her back, and not her face. This is possibly why the author, at times, tells and does not show.
“The reader is in for a treat, with rich descriptive prose that marvellously captures beautiful settings and landmarks, ranging from the Vatican to the French Riviera, as well as St Moritz, Monaco and the famous Gorky Park in Moscow.”
The letter Marie-Claire writes to Sister Marcel in Marcigliana in 1952 is way too advanced for a girl of only 12, yet serves its purpose of conveying information to the reader. Dialogues seem unnecessarily formal, until one remembers the time and place, and realises that perhaps it would not have been convincing otherwise.
It is clear that the author went to great lengths to research his topic.
Despite the occasional punctuation blunder many a self-published book is guilty of, Where do you go to is a lovely and unforgettable read, and a fitting tribute to Sarstedt’s song; and, although one expects a feel-good ending culminating in Marie-Claire learning more about the first few years of her life, the revelation still comes as a surprise.
I have listened to the hit song again since finishing the book, and think Jean Cerfontaine did a heck of a job giving Marie-Claire life. I hope there will be a sequel.