Book Review: Gramercy Park by Timothée de Fombelle and Christian Cailleaux

On top of a tall building stands a woman. She keeps bees. She talks to them. She loves them. Across the street is a man. A bad man. A gangster. The woman watches him. She spies him through his window. She notes when he leaves and when he comes back. She does not love him. He is isolated inside his cavernous, luxurious apartment, except for the people who work for him. He never leaves except for a weekly departure on Sundays. On the street below, two cops sit in their car. They talk. They grow bored. They argue. They are watching the man too. It is clear why they are watching him. They want to arrest him. They want him to pay for what he’s done. It is unknown why she watches him from high above. Or why he allows her to see him through that window.

With Gramercy Park, writer Timothée de Fombelle and illustrator Christian Cailleaux have created a beautiful, enigmatic story about love and hate, patience, and consolation. They’ve taken the trappings of noir – crime and sex and the dark heart of the city – and done something new with it.

In flashbacks, we learn about the woman. Her name is Madeline. She is from Paris. She was a dancer, but married an American and moved to New York. Her love lasted, but the relationship died. Slowly, we learn why she is on that rooftop, and why she watches the man.

He is mostly angry, sometimes sad. He’s angry at his accountant who was supposed to ensure that no one else leased the apartment now occupied by Madeline. The only place with access to view his rooms. But the accountant is allergic to bees and Madeline was faster in obtaining the lease when the last tenant left. He has the sadness of a man who has gotten everything he wants by force and realizes that life has done nothing to make him happy.

There is a young girl. She plays in a park. Alone. Behind a locked gate. The man’s minions concern themselves with her. The cops wonder about her. She is yet another mystery in a book full of them.

The cops notice how Madeline watches the man. They follow her. They make her a deal. Or rather, they give her an order. She has the advantage as she can see in the man’s windows, while they can only see him when he leaves. She will meet with them once a week and report on what he’s doing up there. She agrees but tells them nothing. She has her reasons.

The book takes its time doling out its secrets. The mystery is beside the point. Or maybe the desire to know the answers is more the point than actually knowing them. One of the many joys in reading it is seeing how it defies genre conventions. For quite a few of the books 96 pages, I was lost. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. It is slow to get to the plot. But I never once wanted to put it down. I was entranced. I was in love with what it was doing.

The art is beautiful. The colors are muted like a painting left out in the sun. The lines often seem to fade like a story being told from memory. The details of the story do become clear and the mystery finds resolution. While I enjoyed every moment of the lead-up, the conclusion is satisfying in every way and brings the emotions of the piece right to the front.

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Mat Brewster

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