Ernestine by Claire Nicholas White

Posted May 27, 2014 in Book Review, Novella Review / 0 Comments


I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Ernestine by Claire Nicholas WhiteErnestine by Claire Nicolas White
Published by NY Creative Publishing on July 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 77
Format: ARC
Source: ARC from publisher
Buy on Amazon

Ernestine, a novella by Claire Nicolas White, is the remarkable story of a widely popular, fictionalized teenaged character in modern Europe whose adventures are based upon the life and times of a ninety year old artist who grew up in Europe during WWII.

The real Ernestine, whose name is Francine, has lived a fascinating life. In her youth she was lovely and interesting, and greatly pursued by men the world over. The child of a Flemish woman and an unknown father (a wounded German soldier or Russian aristocrat); Francine grows up in Belgium with her Grandmother. Later in her 20s, she shelters and protects a Jewish law student from Nazi soldiers while living in Paris, and through the help her employer, secures his passage to safety out of France, but never sees him again.

After the war, she travels to the United States and meets countless celebrities during the post-war American “fanny years”. She describes meeting with Peggy Gugenheim, Max Ernst, and others, including practicing eye exercises with Aldous Huxley after driving across country from New York to California with her first husband.

These fantastic stories are adapted by her protégé Christophe, a young man who routinely visits her and fictionalizes her stories of fame and glory through the eyes of a fourteen year old “Ernestine,” who rides a pink bicycle while carrying an oversized umbrella. Wildly popular in the form of serialized illustrated novels, Francine’s seaside home in a remote part of France is turned into a tourists Mecca for Ernestine followers, complete with bus loads of Eastern Europeans wanting to catch a glimpse of the phantom celebrity.

This setting creates a carnival-type atmosphere where Francine reflects on her past adventures while being doted on by her male housekeeper, a theology professor from a neighboring town. There are secrets, however, and complex relationships that bring long-lost friends and lovers back onto center stage, as mysteries unfold regarding the true nature of the relationships of those who surround her.

A visit form her wealthy husband who lives elsewhere in Europe triggers a series of events that are unanticipated by the reader, setting the stage for a surprise ending.

While the subject could lend itself well to potential serialization, as a novella it satisfies the reader with its depth of character development and intriguing subject matter.

writing graphic

I really liked the writing. It had this artistic, poetic quality for the most part. Some lines, especially toward the beginning, I loved so much I repeated out loud to myself. The only complaint I had was the editing. Now, to be sure, the copy I had was such an ADVANCED reader copy that it wasn’t even in book form yet. It was 90 pages of printer paper, printed straight from the computer. So a lot of the editing was missing, especially with quotation marks. Those were absolutely out of control. But I know they’ll be fixed by the final copy.

plot graphic

The story was wonderful and nostalgic.  It details Francine’s life, switching back and forth between history and present, where she is an old woman living in a nice house with her caretaker Oreste and frequently accompanied by Christophe, who has made her into a fictional character named Ernestine, who is 14. But her past is very eventful. She certainly got around. From hiding a Jew in Europe to meeting Aldous Huxley in America (I just finished one of his books), she has been all over and met a lot of important people. One thing we never really see is her emotional side. When she marries, it isn’t out of love but more of security and comfort. I suppose it’s because her first love wasn’t to be forgotten, even if it didn’t work out. It’s a bit of a sad story.

Overall, her life was very interesting, if not a fairy tale.But I suppose it did have a happy ending, and not one I expected.

characters graphic

Francine: I liked her at the beginning, because she had such a spicy personality and was very past-oriented and disliked all the change that the world was going through, with technology and touristy things and advertising. But later on in the book, I began to dislike her because of her treatment of her caretaker, Oreste, and her attitude toward some other things/people that I liked.

Christophe: Didn’t really like him much either. He seemed too interested in Francine’s past in order to have material for his fictional character, Ernestine. He didn’t seem to care for her as a real person.

The other characters- Mary (her friend from young adulthood), Ben (Mary’s grandson), Louisa (Mary’s daughter), Bernard (Francine’s old lover), and Oreste- they were all likeable. Not much else to comment.

setting graphic

I always liked stories set around WWII, but Francine’s long lifetime spanned many more years than that. In fact, it was not about the war at all, though much was affected by it. But the story does involve several different countries and we learn about the different customs and histories of each. Mostly in Europe. It was described quite well.

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The ending was perhaps my favorite part. There are quite a lot of nice twists and surprises and things that come together neatly. I confess, I could have seen some of them coming if I paid better attention to names and people’s histories and things, but all the same it was a better surprise because I hadn’t been able to figure it out beforehand. Francine doesn’t take the sudden developments very well, but I liked them.

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I quite liked this book. The plot was interesting enough and the ending was delightfully unexpected. The characters were well fleshed out if not all likeable. The setting is marvelously done and the writing is beautiful, at times profound. Would I read more by this author? A good solid maybe. Would I recommend this book to others? Yes, but not everyone.

About Claire Nicolas White

Claire Nicolas White is a poet, translator, playwright, and the author of a novel, a memoir and three non-fiction books about members of her family. Her poetry has appeared in many publications including the New Yorker, the Partisan Review, the Paris Review, the Hudson Review, Grand Street, Atlantic Monthly and Commonweal.

Claire was born in 1925 in Groet, in the north of Holland. Her father, Joep Nicolas, was a Dutch stained glass painter; her mother, Suzanne Nys, a Belgian sculptress. She went to convent schools in Limburg, then for a year to the École Alsacienne in Paris. With the German invasion imminent her family came to the United States, arriving in Manhattan in 1940. There she attended the Lycée Français, from which she graduated in 1943. She finished her studies as an English major at Smith college. She had a short story and a poem published in Junior Harper’s Bazaar and published a bilingual journal, called Marsyas, which was featured in the magazine. She also translated a memoir by a young French girl, written during the war, for Pantheon Books.

Claire continued to write poems and articles for Vogue and Harper’s, and published a novel, The Death of the Orange Trees (Harper and Rowe, 1963), and Biography and Other Poems (Doubleday, 1981). On Long Island Claire taught dancing and French, and wrote several plays for the Women’s Theatre Repertory. Later she taught poetry and memoir workshops to senior citizens for TAPROOT as well as at the Walt Whitman House, C.W. Post, Long Island University and Stony Brook University.

Over the years she continued to spend time in Holland, composing a book about her father’s work (Joep Nicolas: His Life and Work; Van Spijk, 1979). She also translated three novels from the Dutch and edited a Dutch issue of Columbia University’s Translation magazine, as well as translating French poetry such as Alfred de Musset’s La Nuit de Mai.

Her collection Biography and Other Poems was published by Doubleday in 1981, her memoir, Fragments of Stained Glass by Mercury House in 1989, and The Elephant and the Rose: a Family History in 2003 by Vineyard Press. She edited Stanford White: Letters to his Family for Rizzoli in 1997, and published a book about her late husband’s work (Robert White, Sculptor; Waterline) in 2006. She has been the editor of Oberon magazine for ten years.

Overall: three-stars


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