A lot has happened in the last two weeks. Not only has Alienation been launched on Audiobook (Rena Gail has once again done an amazing job!) but I also finished my manuscript for Aix Marks the Spot. I’m so excited about it, you guys!
Unlike Starstruck, Aix Marks the Spot is completely rooted on Earth. No Scifi involved anywhere; it’s purely a YA contemporary, for fans of such books as Anna and the French Kiss, Love and Luck, or And We’re Off. The entire plot came to me overnight, and the first draft was written in less than two weeks. More than ever before, I feel like I need to write this book; that somehow, Aix is (ok, this is going to sound really weird) speaking to me. Maybe Aix is just my muse now. In any case, this book is my love letter to Provence. Let me tell you all about it!
Jamie has her dream summer all ready to go: an intensive art camp and road trips with her best friend Jazz, to celebrate the freedom of finally having her own license. What she didn’t count on was the accident.
Exiled from the family as her mother slowly recovers, Jamie is sent to Provence to live with her estranged grandmother. Now trapped in a tiny house with no wifi, Jamie crumbles under the guilt of having almost killed her parents. That is, until, she finds an old letter from her father that changes everything: the first step in a treasure hunt that spans cities and time itself. Finding the treasure is the only way she can save her mother and make her family whole again.
Armed only with a high school level of French, she must enlist the aid of Valentin, a handsome local who’s willing to translate. She has castle ruins to find and sea cliffs to climb, but only if the bus system doesn’t shut down on her first…
UPDATE: You can read the entire book right now, here on Swoonreads. Please leave a review and vote for my little novel!
Every single place in the book is somewhere that matters to me. Part of my experience growing up here in the south of France as an American who will never be one thing or another. Not to mention, weird detail, but every place they go, every bus and train they take, I have tested and taken and double checked the timetable. So unless the bus stops running (which they tend to do on occasion) Jamie and Valentin’s steps can be retraced exactly.
A lot of the inspiration also came from watching Provence grow around me. People have this image of it being timeless and unchanging, but I’ve lived here almost twenty years, and seen so much go by. The relationship to foreigners, the money invested in heritage sites… it’s part of the reason I have Jamie retracing her parents’ steps from seventeen years ago: through their eyes, we see France as it was when I first arrived here, and through hers, as it is now. Some of the challenges in her hunt arise from just how much has changed in this time.
Ok, enough babbling. Here’s the first chapter for you to get a little taste of it. Please let me know what you think by posting in the comments below!
You always told me that the first time I would come to Provence, it would feel like coming home; but instead, it felt like an exile.
It was never supposed to be like this. You were going to be the one to show me the places you fell in love with when you first came here, all those years ago, and dad would take me to the spots he discovered as he grew up beneath the pines. But neither of you were with me now. Instead, I spent eight hours crammed into the tiny seat on the back of a full flight, on my way to meet a woman neither of you had spoken to for the entirety of my existence, trying not to think about Jazz as she now lived out our of summer of fun on her own.
Having hours alone to reflect on all this – not to mention remembering every vivid detail of the accident that put me on this plane in the first place – did wonders to one’s mood. Having to wait another five in a crowded airport, all to willingly cram myself back into a metal sky canister, now that was just sadomasochistic. Luckily, unlike a few jackpot winners on my flight, my bags had actually followed me the entire way from Philadelphia. And to make my day even worse, I would be living the oh-so-great experience of spending the next hour or more in a tiny car with a complete stranger who didn’t speak a lick of English.
He said I would recognize him by the old straw hat he wore, but that had been an understatement: it was easily the rattiest panama I had ever laid eyes on. In thick jeans and a light blue shirt, it was almost as if I had never left the states. He looked exactly like a farmer from any commercial I had ever seen for fresh juice.
He stood before an absolutely tiny red car, which I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I guessed it hadn’t been driven since WW2. It was even more ancient than a buggy. The cherry on top of this ever-growing cake was that it was a bright, ladybug red.
“Jamie?” he asked, the name rolling off his tongue like a bad stereotype. He sounded like he was asking how I liked my PB&J’s – Jammy.
“Jamie,” I said, insisting on the ‘aye’ sound, holding out my free hand to shake his, but instead he plucked the cigarette from his mouth and pressed his cheek to mine, smacking his lips, and repeated the same with the other cheek. My eyes went wide.
“Jean-Pascal,” he took a drag from his cig, grinning wide. “Enchanté, ma belle. T’as besoin d’un coup de main?”
“Ah, no French?” the grin faded, but only for an instant. I could understand the confusion: every email he had ever sent me I had fed through a translator and written my reply right there in the same box. Every email he or Mamie received had been in French: just not my French.
“Help… you?” He made a gesture, as if to reach for my bag. I nodded, pressing the handle of my suitcase into his hand. He rolled it to the back of his tiny car, stuffing it into the surprisingly large trunk. He then took a long look at my carry on, shrugged, and tossed it on the back seat.
“You ‘ave ez-ry-ting?” he asked earnestly, and again I nodded. He indicated the passenger side of the car with a sweeping gesture of his hand, tossing the now used up cigarette into a nearby ashtray, because of course those were everywhere. “En route, alors.”
He pulled out of the flashy new carpark of the Marseille airport and around the multiple roundabouts that stood between us and the highway. Surprisingly, the tiny little car was doing quite well, and roared to life on the freeway.
“Iz not far,” he said, still keeping that jovial smile on his face. “Did you ‘ave good trip?”
I nodded again, before realizing he couldn’t see me. A little, muffled “Oui” was all that I could muster.
“Ah! Ze girl speaks!” he let out a light laugh. “Iz zis your first time in France?”
“Oui, Désolé, mon Francais c’est… très mal…” I blurted out, my hands digging awkwardly into the foam of the seat cushion. I didn’t want to have to talk to the stranger. After Mamie had agreed to let me stay, she still passed me on to this friend of hers for airport pickup. She was much too busy with who knows what to actually pick me up herself.
“My English, your French…” he didn’t have to finish for me to understand where he was going. We were doing the best we could: we may have needed to translate each other’s emails, but we had still managed to find each other at the airport, so all in all, we probably were not as badly as we thought.
Conversation didn’t matter anyway: within a few minutes of smooth driving on the highway, even with the wrinkled stranger in his ratty hat, I had still drifted off to sleep, rocked by the slow rhythm of the old car.
I hadn’t been one of those girls dreaming of going to France all my life, and if I had, I would have picked Paris as my destination of choice: all those art museums waiting to be discovered, the beating heart that connected all the things that I loved. I hadn’t wanted to see the south, and certainly not in the dead of summer. From what I heard, no one had introduced this country to air conditioning yet.
But I deserved it. I deserved every kind of punishment you could throw at me: I almost killed you, so it made perfect sense you didn’t want to see me again. I would respect that, stay out of your way as you learned to walk again. Even if it meant living with the stranger dad once called his mother.
I was woken up by a smell, rather than a sound. My eyes slowly fluttered open to see a completely empty road, lined with fields on either sides, grasses tall and jagged in mismatched colors. Beautiful trees shaded our drive, keeping the sun from my face. Jean-Pascal was slowing the car to a stop, which didn’t bother me at first, until I realized what the white things starting to drift into my vision actually were.
Sheep. Or goats, I suppose, I never could tell the difference. The one thing I could tell you about them is that they smell so much worse than their picture book counterparts. The stench seeped through the windows and deep into the fibers of my skin.
The car finally stopped, the heard of goat things now crossing the road in full force. With the air suddenly stagnant, I could feel the heat of the day cloying at my skin, beads of sweat beginning to trickle from my brow, even down my back.
“Tu peut bouger ton cul?” my driver threw open his car door and yelled to the herd. “M’enfin!”
At first, I was convinced he was speaking to the sheep, until a woman appeared out of nowhere, her blonde dreadlocks stuffed into a floppy sun hat, which she tipped to Jean-Pascal as she strode up to him.
“Salut, vieux,” she said cheerfully, before going off on some tirade in French, the two of them playing off each other like old friends. She was insanely young to be a shepherd, looking for all intents and purposes like a backpacking college student. But I hadn’t heard any stories of college students travelling Europe with herds of sheep.
Or goats. I still wasn’t sure about what they were just yet.
The herd was still crossing the road as she spoke, three large dogs keeping them steady as they moved from one pasture to the next. Across from us, two cars were also waiting for them to pass, though one of them had the driver leaning out, rapidly snapping pictures with his phone.
“Bon, à plus!” she said, waving lazily at Jean-Pascal as she turned back to her herd. The last of them had made it across the asphalt, and the other stream of cars was slowly beginning to move again. “Ciao, Poulet!”
Jean-Pascal laughed at this, closing the car door and shaking his head. He turned to me and let out a single, proud “Woof!” before hitting the gas once again.
“Woof!” He contorted his face, obviously concentrating hard. “Farming. Woof! Do you see?”
I did not see, but I also did not care. All I wanted right now was a hot bath, a hot meal, and a warm bed. But as I was starting to get warmer the longer I sat in this car, I was starting to question where those priorities were lying.
The car was making an odd noise as it drove, an overwhelming chirp chirp chirp, and I wondered if it was all that safe. I clutched the seat and held on tighter. I was exhausted, but there was no way I could go back to sleep now.
We drove around a small little lake, one so tiny it could have been called a pond, then across a river, this one wide enough to deserve that distinction. The fields here were lush and green, the road still shaded by large plane trees, even this far from civilization. When we finally drove through towns, they too were barely large enough to be called that. It seemed everything was done smaller in France.
“Almost there,” said Jean-Pascal, “Bientot.”
He waited for a response, his eyebrows raising playfully, urging me on.
“Be-n-toe,” I repeated, and that smile of his grew tenfold.
“Bravo!” he cheered, “Je te jure, tu seras bilingue quand j’aurait fini avec toi.”
Not knowing a word of what he just said, I just smiled and said “oui.” He seemed to like this a lot.
I knew the fundamental basics of French from you and dad: when both your parents are French lit professors, it would be embarrassing for their daughter not to. But the second it was actually up to me to open my mouth and speak, the words dried right up. All I could say to strangers were yes, no, please and thank you, and that was it. Not a great start to a conversation.
The farmland fell away as buildings appeared on either side of the road. Somehow, with no transition at all, we had reached a village. The houses that lined the street were ancient, their stones crumbling beneath wooden shutters and clinging ivy that made entire walls burst green with life. These alternated with modern homes, though I wasn’t quite sure if they were all that modern, just not as old looking as the others. Ancient or modern, laundry hung out the windows, cars were parked in driveways, and they gave the distinct feel that they were lived in.
And then, as we swung around a large road, my jaw dropped. Because there, right there, just a few feet away from me, was a castle.
It didn’t have towers or tourets as I had been imagining since I was a child. In fact, it was more like a large house, simply ancient and made entirely out of stone. Trees grew around the foot of the fortress, tall and majestic, cyrpus reaching for the sky as the pines spread out like parasols. A flag waved at the top, striped yellow and red, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t French at all.
Jean-Pascal slowed the car for me, all so I could gawk at the castle through the windshield. He was grinning again, and I could almost feel the excitement pulsing through him.
“Welcome to Lourmarin,” he said, proudly, “welcome home.”
I need to thank the brilliant and amazing Cora for helping me so much with this manuscript. For showering me with love when I needed it, for helping me work out the flaws, for falling in love with the characters with me. This book would not be here without her!