As the riders pile up in the crashes at this year’s Tour de France, take break for a slower paced, more gentle Tour with George’s Grand Tour by Caroline Vermalle, translated from the French by Ann Aitken. It won’t take you long to understand why this heartwarming story is an international bestseller.
George is eighty-three. Old age snuck up on him unawares and, while his body is falling apart, he still feels as young as ever inside. Nonetheless, all the doctors and their diagnoses about his bad heart have worn him out. Add to that a fretting daughter continually checking up on him to make sure he isn’t overdoing things, and George has pretty much given up and sits around in his slippers waiting for the end. But the end is taking a long time to arrive. When his daughter announces she is going away for a two-month trek in Peru and will be completely unreachable during that time except in the most dire emergency, George decides it is time to stop waiting.
George and his “young” seventy-six-year-old neighbor, Charles, plan a trip of their own. Both men are huge fans of the Tour de France and decide they will do their own Tour. Using former Tour routes, they plan out their own 3,500 kilometer route that will take them two months to complete by car. Why? Because they want to. And because:
…he had to complete this epic circuit, before the army of paramedics descended upon him to unleash an assault of well-intentioned humiliation and take every last freedom away from him.
But the Tour is almost over before it begins when George gets a phone call from his twenty-three-year-old granddaughter to whom he has barely spoken in ten years. It isn’t that he and Adèle have had a falling out, only a drifting apart. George is sure his daughter has put Adèle up to calling him to check up on him. How is he going to go on his two-month Tour? In a moment of inspiration, Charles has an idea. George has a mobile phone he has never used before and Charles figures out how to have calls to George’s home number forwarded to his mobile without anyone being the wiser.
Off they go on their trip. But it is only a few days in before Adèle realizes something is fishy and George spills the beans. Adèle is concerned for her grandfather’s health but he is clearly having a great time and he is not alone so she makes a deal with him. She won’t say anything to her mother as long as George sends her a text message once a day. Thus ensues some amusing moments of George trying to learn how to text that culminates in a young waiter in a small restaurant teaching him how and the evening ending with songs, laughter, and pig Latin followed by a morning hangover.
But as the Tour progresses George begins to text Adèle more and more often and she responds. The years that have kept them apart quickly disappear as the text correspondence comes to mean more and more to the both of them. Along the way George also falls in love and discovers that Charles is not just a good neighbor but also a good friend who has personal reasons of his own for the Tour other than looking after George.
George’s Grand Tour is a charming and lighthearted story about aging, love and friendship. It is a story that reminds us we only live once and we had best make the most of it. It also makes the reader think about the way we treat the old, forcing them to curtail their lives because we are worried about them rather than allowing them the dignity of making their own choices. Might George’s ailing heart give out on him during his Tour? Of course it might. But it will also eventually give out while he sits at home in is slippers waiting and growing more depressed by the day. As one of the marvelous characters George and Charles meet on their travels says:
‘Hats off to you both, you’ve chosen life! Down with the dictatorship of aches and pains, and down with doctors who stuff us with pills, and down with the daily routine that’s sending us to our graves. We’ve got to rebel. And when the end comes, well, we can bow out with dignity.’
This Tour we call life is full of risks. And sometimes, as the riders in the Tour de France are showing us, the crashes can be spectacular. But George’s Tour reminds us that it is better to take the risk and go all out toward the finish rather than fret away the time in an easy chair listening to the ticking of the clock.
Stefanie Hollmichel lives in Minneapolis, MN. Librarian, gardener and blogger, you can find her at So Many Books.