Sunday, August 11, 2013

THE CLEANER OF CHARTRES by Salley Vickers (Books & Wine #6)

Published June 27, 2013 by Viking Adults
Edition: hardcover, 304 pages
Genre: contemporary fiction, mystery, women's fiction, romance
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Buy it on Amazon

"I often wonder if happiness isn't knowing what should and what should not be explained." 
Nobody recalls exactly when Agnès Morel, a beautiful and illiterate young woman, first arrived in Chartres: with her brightly colored clothes, exotic look, and quiet presence, she seems to have always been around, smoothing away some of the daily cares of the people of the medieval town. Twenty years earlier, Father Paul, now Dean of Notre Dame, had found her asleep in a niche of the cathedral, and although tramps were not allowed to use the church as a shelter, the young priest had turned a blind eye and let the homeless girl rest peacefully under her heavy coat, curled up like a cat between the strong and saint arms of the cathedral's pillars.
An ace at housework and woman of a few words, Agnès has been spending the past twenty years building a reputation as a conscientious cleaner, accomplished ironer, and reliable babysitter. While religiously scrubbing the cathedral's floors, keeping Prof. Jones and Father Paul's houses clean and organized, babysitting the infant nephew of her former charge Philippe, and posing as a model for a local painter, her compliant manners and helpful attitude have earned the respectful  sympathy of the inhabitants of the French town and the romantic interest of a young restorer. Alas, she becomes the victim of a ruthless as well as groundless witch-hunt: fueled by malice and jealousy, old and bald Madame Beck, a woman who has nothing better to do with herself than sowing gossips and discord, starts spreading defamatory rumors about Agnès. And what is worse, the old bat decides to delve into the past of the taciturn and mysterious woman, threatening to reveal her darkest secret and destroy her peaceful existence. 
Agnès' past, in fact, is starkly painful: no parents, no relatives, no knowledge of her background or sense of belonging in anybody's heart. A foundling, rescued by a farmer and raised by the nuns, as a child she was affected by a learning disability that prevented her from mastering the ability to read or write. Industrious and always willing to learn, Agnès' childhood was marked by tragedy and traumatic events, and now that she has found an harbor of consolation in the majestic cathedral and its town, history seems to repeat itself with a vengeance. 

It took me a while to get into this story, but once I did, I found it quite interesting and enjoyable. Different, I would say. Elaborate like the facade of a Gothic cathedral, as rich and beautiful as a mosaic in a stained-glass window, The Cleaner of Chartres' opening chapters summoned my attention with an array of colorful characters, dual timeline, and poignant backstories that made a full and beautiful sense when the last piece of the puzzle was laid down in the form of a startling epiphany. The simultaneous introduction of multiple characters, as essential to the story as the central character itself, may initially confuse and distract the reader, but the inhabitants of Chartres will eventually cling to a corner of your heart with their moving humanity, quirkiness, and pitiful dramas. Salley Vickers' novel can better be described as a modern fairy tale, and a dark one at that. Of that form of storytelling, Vickers' novel features the typical plot structure, motifs, and dramatis personae. Written with the grace and sensitivity of an author who obviously has an understanding of human psychology (Vickers is a former university professor of literature and Jungian psychotherapy), this story lacks the 'fantasy' element (in its place the author introduced the 'mystical' and the 'divine') but it features all the archetypal figures populating a traditional folktale: the heroine/victim of an intrigue/spell (Agnès), a villain (Madame Beck), a donor/helper/rescuer (Jean Dupère, the farmer who found her wrapped in a tablecloth on a frigid winter night; Prof. Jones who teaches her how to read; Abbé Paul who exposes Madame Beck's evil scheme), the prince (Alain, the cathedral restorer who loves her for what she is), and the castle (the cathedral of Notre Dame). In the vein of a fairy tale, the resolution is rather uplifting: hope prevails, order is restored, and the heroine elevates herself above misfortunes and adversities. 

***Review copy generously offered by the publisher in return of a fair and unbiased opinion



(Photo credit:

Somellier extraordinaire Andrea Mussone graced the blog, once again, with a wine & food pairing that is simply divine...such a lovely fit for a lovely novel! "Located not far from the lovely city of Chartres, the Loire Valley is the wine region where Pouilly Fumè is made. It stretches for about 600 miles along the Loire River. The two main white grape varieties of this region are Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.
Pouilly Fumè is a dry white wine with the most body and concentration of all the Loire Valley wines and it’s made with 100% Sauvignon Blanc. “Fumè” in French means smoked and one of the reasons for this word comes probably from the white morning mist that blankets the area. As the sun burns off the mist, it looks as if the smoke is rising. Another one is definitely because the grape character recalls the flint.
Generally, at the nose Pouilly Fumè has citrus, grassy/herbaceous, white-fleshed fruit and litchi, white flowers, vegetal, spicy and mineral notes, while on the palate it has some fresh fruit (citrus, grapefruit, lime, apple, peach), subtle spiciness, limestone minerality and very good freshness. It’s medium to full bodied with a long lasting bouquet and taste. Generally it’s not aged in wood. 
Pouilly Fumè is considered to be one of the most elegant Sauvignon Blanc expression in the world. Some California Sauvignon blancs are also called "Fumé Blanc" and to create this name, Mondavi took Fumé from Pouilly-Fumé and Blanc from Sauvignon Blanc, combined them and created his own clever wine name.
Great food pairing with smoked salmon, turbot with hollandaise sauce, white meat, chicken, veal with cream sauce." (Guest blogger - Andrea Mussone, Italy)

Andrea Mussone, Italy


  1. Sounds very interesting! Definitely in my to-read list =D

    1. For sure, Sergio! Vickers seems to be a very clever author with an interesting background...jungian psychology. Thank you for stopping by :)