How Provence Inspired Sophie Claire’s Novel
The following article is by first-time novelist Sophie Claire. Enjoy the read!
Although I’ve lived most of my life in England, my mother’s side of the family is French and we spoke French at home – so it wasn’t a surprise that I set my first novel, Her Forget-Me-Not Ex, in Provence. Every summer when I was a child, we used to pack up the car and make the two-day journey down to the south coast to stay with my grandparents who had a house there. Those childhood summers have, of course become rose-tinted with nostalgia, but they were very special and, come the month of August, I always find myself reminiscing, even now years later. It was the only time in the year when we saw my French family because air travel was expensive back then, and the main method of keeping in touch with my grandparents was by letter – handwritten and posted in airmail envelopes. My grandmother used to write to my mum, my sister and me individually every week, so despite the distance I felt very close to her and I loved the quiet moments we shared sitting in the shade, playing word games, knitting and chatting. She would tell me stories about her past and about the people in her family whom I’d never met but who came to life in my imagination.
But after a few days of sitting on the beach my dad would get bored, so we also did a lot of day trips visiting the area. Picturesque and historic hilltop villages were a particular favourite, such as Le Castellet and Eze, as were early morning walks in the pine forests and climbing the steep path to La Sainte Baume. We visited vineyards, my parents stocking up on supplies of wine to take home, and we explored the coast: Nice, Toulon, St Tropez. Sometimes we took the ferry to Porquerolles which, as a child, was incredibly exciting and marred only by the fact that we had to help carry the heavy ice box full of food all the way to the beach when we arrived on the island. Later in the day, while my parents would look at their watches, anxious not to miss the ferry home, my sister and I would secretly dream of being marooned there.
We also explored further inland: Aix (one of my favourites), Cotignac, St Maximin with its beautiful monastery (which I believe is now an upmarket hotel) and the lakes of Les Gorges du Verdon with their stunning colours and the breath-taking views as we journeyed there.
But my most cherished memories are of the times we spent together with my extended family gathered around the (very large!) table, enjoying Grandmere’s delicious meals. Although she was born in Nancy, my grandmother favoured Provencal cooking over the northern cream-based French cuisine. Amongst other dishes, she made the most exquisite Sauté de Veau de la Colline (veal stew with a rich tomato sauce) and legumes farcis (stuffed vegetables: usually beef tomatoes, but also peppers, globe-shaped courgettes and aubergines). Here in England, I grow round courgettes and stuff them with minced beef, rice and spices, but they never taste as good as Grandmere’s, eaten in the warm shade of the plane tree with a gentle sea breeze rustling its leaves.
These family meals would last for hours, with the wine flowing and everyone relaxed and in holiday mode. There would be lots of stories told and joking and banter. It is a very special feeling to be surrounded by so many people who love you and have known you since you were born, and I drew on these memories when I wrote my novel, Her Forget-Me-Not Ex, a contemporary romance in which florist Natasha’s French ex, Luc, asks her to come with him to France because his sick father has asked to meet her.
It wasn’t difficult to make my heroine, Natasha, wish she belonged at Chateau Duval, even though she’s there under false pretences, pretending that she and Luc are still married. The chateau itself might be old and set among lush vineyards, but it’s Luc’s large and noisy family which makes the place special in her eyes. Natasha doesn’t have any family and she longs for one of her own, so she’s particularly envious of Luc’s loving parents and siblings. However, as welcoming as the Duvals might be, she knows she doesn’t belong in this place which is filled with children’s laughter, where there’s always someone who could use her help, and where the beautiful house and garden are infused with centuries of tradition. At the end of the two weeks, she and Luc know she will leave and return to England. But I’ll leave it for you to find out what happens when she faces that dilemma…
At the end of my own childhood summers, we would reluctantly climb back into the car, and there were always tears as we said goodbye to my grandparents for another year. The journey home was sticky and hot (no air-conditioned cars in those days!) and long, but we knew it was worth it because we were lucky to have spent four weeks in such a beautiful and special part of the world.
For more details on Sophie Claire or to follow her on social media here is the link to her website.