The Devil’s Reward
Translated from French by C. Jon Delogu
Three generations of women untangle a complex family history that spans both world wars and reveals unexpected insights about marriage and fidelity.
Christiane, eighty-six years old with a vibrant sense of humor, lives alone in a large apartment in the heart of Paris. Her daughter, Catherine, could not be more different; sullen and uptight, she resents her unfaithful Milanese husband. After discovering yet another affair, Catherine takes refuge in Paris at her mother’s home, accompanied by her own daughter, Luna. Christiane, who in spite of occasional dalliances lived a beautiful love story with her late husband, uses all of her freethinking charm to try to wean Catherine of her rigid self-pity.
While listening to her mother and grandmother, Luna becomes increasingly curious about Christiane’s aristocratic Catholic background, prompting Christiane to tell the story of her family. Memories resurface, and past events are reconstructed, shedding new light on the present.
With a keen, lighthearted wit, The Devil’s Reward shows that life may be complicated and often painful, but if conventional morals prevail, it becomes unbearable.
Catherine is beautiful, there’s no doubt about that. It’s perhaps because I made her, but everyone always used to tell me how stunning she looked. She just thickened up a bit these past years, probably eating too much. Her problem—and I say this out of immense love for her—is that she’s very tiresome. She got that from my mother. Everything is a big deal to her. She is constantly on the lookout, nostrils dilated sniffing every danger, ears cocked to detect the slightest threat. Her husband grants himself a few too many liberties, but they’ve been married for thirty-something years and she spends her life spying on him. It’s as though all these tragedies that she’s staging were giving her a reason to live. If she knew that I cheated on her father and how much he cheated on me she’d hit the ceiling. And yet we loved each other. None of our lovers were ever of any real importance, but that was another time. People tended to marry only once and they easily got used to the idea of having later on a sort of fraternal friend with whom to finish out one’s days. In between people occupied themselves as best they could, but we had enough sense not to confuse everything. At least in our families it was like that.
For my daughter, on the other hand, it’s a tragedy. She always had a tendency to dramatize things, but in this my little girl is powerless, it’s just the way she is. And obviously it’s not for me, her mother, to tell her to take a lover of her own. It always pains me to hear her go on like this. But really, why does she obsess about snooping into her husband’s business? No couple can withstand such up-close inspection.
- What is Christiane’s storytelling philosophy? Do you agree with it?
- What is the “devil’s reward” of the title?
- Who is Rudolf Steiner? Had you heard of him before reading The Devil’s Reward? What relationship does he have with Christiane and her family?
- A friend of Aunt Bette’s explains that “According to Steiner, evil can operate in either of two ways: the way of Lucifer, which turns man exaggeratedly from reality, so that he only takes interest in spiritual matters; or the way of Ahriman, which binds him to matter and turns his attention from all spiritual activities” (p 30). Are there any characters in the novel who display either of these evils?
- Describe the relationship between Christiane and her daughter. How are they similar? How do they differ? Do you think there’s a similarity between their relationship and the one between Christiane and her own mother? Is Catherine more like her mother or her grandmother Marguerite?
- What do you think of Papyrus? Is he ultimately a sympathetic character, or does your impression of him differ from Christiane’s? If Marguerite were the narrator, do you think your impression of him would change?
- Christiane tells us of her father, “He never let his sad, complicated side show in public” (p 144). How are she and Papyrus similar?
- How does World War II affect Christiane’s family?
- Describe Christiane’s ideal of marriage. Do you agree with her?
- How does Aunt Bette save Christiane’s life? Do you think Christiane saves her daughter’s life?
“A sprightly tour through an old woman’s family secrets reveals that loving someone often requires the ability to forgive and a certain ‘sleight of hand.’” —Kirkus Reviews
“De Villepin’s intimate family portrait…gracefully highlights the ways people of widely varying temperaments learn to coexist…[and] features gratifyingly in-depth character studies and a strong sense of place.” —Booklist
“The story’s lighthearted and approachable nature allows it to explore both the pain and joy of these [family] connections in an honest way.” —World Literature Today
“Evocative…Readable and authentic.” —Historical Novel Society
“Illuminating…A seductive life lesson.” —Vogue (Italy)
“A novel that uncovers the hidden nerves of family relationships.” —Marie Claire (Italy)
“A love triangle in which we clearly recognize ourselves.” —Vanity Fair (Italy)
“De Villepin adroitly plumbs the depths of human emotions.” —L’Espresso