THE TRAVELS OF DANIEL ASCHER
by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
translated by Adriana Hunter
Other Press, 189 pages
reviewed by Melissa M. Firman
How well do we really know the people we love? What happens when the family stories and personal histories we’ve grown up believing turn out to be fiction—or, at best, a version of the truth?
These are the questions explored in The Travels of Daniel Ascher, the debut novel of Déborah Lévy-Bertherat. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, this is a quick, fast-paced read where much happens in this story-within-a-story novel.
Hélène, a 20 year old archaeologist living in Paris, is a typical university student; she’s exploring her new city, falling in love with Guillaume, and occasionally babysitting a young neighbor boy. Among the few people she knows in Paris is her great-uncle, Daniel Roche, a famous author. His books, written under the pseudonym H.R. Sanders, are bestselling literary travel adventures with dashes of fantasy and mystery. (Think Harry Potter.)
Great-uncle Daniel has always been somewhat of an enigma. Living in such close proximity to him (Hélène rents a room in the same building) draws her more closely into his mysterious world. Doing so offers her an opportunity to learn the truth beneath what she has been told and believed about her family for her entire life. And Hélène’s boyfriend Guillaume, who happens to be an ardent fanboy of Daniel’s work, is more than happy to spend time with Hélène if it means getting closer to his idol.
Among the most puzzling aspects of Daniel’s life for Hélène are some unexplained spaces in the family tree and Daniel’s long, mysterious absences when he is reportedly traveling to remote corners of the globe. Between her observations of Daniel’s life and reflections on his decisions, there are flashbacks to family gatherings from her childhood.
“When Daniel did attend big family meals, he always sat at the children’s table, far away from the adults. The kids begged him to tell stories, and he would embark on hare-brained tales of adventure, rolling his eyes, mimicking voices, accents, and animal calls, describing fantastical situations, stringing together puns and suddenly roaring with laughter when no one could quite see why.”
Like Daniel Roche/H.R. Sanders’ best-selling adventure series about a mysterious world traveler, The Travels of Daniel Ascher is also part fairytale, part mystery, and part coming-of-age young adult story. It is about stories, and the layers those stories reveal to us, and those that are kept hidden.
As Hélène digs deeper to put the pieces of her family’s life together, she explores one of the hardest aspects we all face when emerging into adulthood: learning our personal histories and accepting the truth of who those we love really are. Déborah Lévy-Bertherat examines this universal struggle beautifully through Hélène’s eyes.
“Perhaps that was what becoming an adult was, emerging from the clouds, leaving behind the sweet half-light of childhood, coming out into the blinding clarity of a truth you haven’t asked to know.”
Like Hélène and those around her, this is Daniel’s struggle, too, given his free spirited nature and childlike approach to life. How the answers present themselves for both of these characters–who are more alike than they ever realize–is for the reader to uncover, as well. The answers to what we need to learn about ourselves and those walking beside us on life’s journey might be right in front of us or await us elsewhere in this vast, mysterious, discovery-laden world.
Melissa M. Firman is a writer of blog posts, creative nonfiction, short stories, book reviews, nonprofit communication pieces, and a book-in-progress. Her work has been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Philadelphia Review of Books’ poetry blog, and more. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Melissa and her husband currently reside in Pittsburgh with their teenage twins. Connect with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheFirmanGroup or via her website at www.melissafirman.com.