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2018 Reading Challenge

2018 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 25 books toward her goal of 175 books.
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Book Review: The Bettencourt Affair by Tom Sancton

It all began when Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L’Oreal fortune, met François-Marie Banier, an artist and photographer who was, in his youth, the toast of Paris and a protégé of Salvador Dalí. Over the next two decades, Banier was given hundreds of millions of dollars in gifts, cash, and insurance policies by Liliane. Their relationship wasn’t clear, least of all to Liliane’s daughter, who became suspicious of Banier’s motives and filed a lawsuit against him. But Banier has a far different story to tell…

What started as a family drama quickly became a massive scandal, uncovering L’Oréal’s shadowy corporate history and buried World War II secrets. All of Paris, from the servant quarters to the office of President Sarkozy, was shaken by the blockbuster case, the shocking reversals, and the surprising final victim.

How’s THAT for a lead-in?? Let me tell you, the drama is thick on the ground in this one… So is the detail. At times, that detail made the book a bit overwhelming. I do not follow French politics or business, so did not know the vast majority of the names thrown about in the first portion of the book. The background on the origins of L’Oreal, while interesting to a point, was rather lengthy to my mind. The collaborationist nature of Eugène Schueller (the company’s founder) and his Nazi/Vichy sympathies made for interesting reading – again, to a point – but it too felt a bit over-detailed. The drama is real in both of those portions of the book, don’t get me wrong. But it is far eclipsed by the familial relationships – and then, in what was to me the most intriguing part of the book, by the legal battle(s).

The casual attitude toward money – BIG money – which lies at the heart of this story is, quite literally, unfathomable to me. Tens and hundreds of millions of Euros are thrown around with nary the blink of an eye. The L’Oreal fortune is vast even in an era of Big Business money, and Liliane’s sole control of it is rather mind-blowing. She and her husband Andre buy apartments, islands, and (it turns out) politicians with what should be seen as reckless abandon but is instead generally viewed as a regular Tuesday afternoon… When Banier enters the picture, Liliane is older and seemingly jaded by her wealth and life. He injects art, celebrity, vivacity, and a whole new appreciation for what money can buy into a life that, frankly, seems to have become a bit of a chore for the heiress. To Liliane, he is a savior. To her daughter and many of those around her, though, he is something rather different…

The crusade against Banier was the most interesting part of the book for me. I am a lawyer, and although I was never a litigator, litigation and the machinations behind it have always intrigued me. The French judicial system (as with so many French institutions) is different from the American, and seeing how those differences played out (and imagining how they might have gone, had this been a domestic issue) was fascinating to me. The level of detail in these sections of the book was, in all fairness, likely the same as for the others I mentioned earlier, but here the detail felt more appropriate and more engaging. That is likely my interest bias, rather than an actual distinction of merit. Still, from the opening salvos, I found the tale of the legal battles to be most engaging and to read like a legal thriller – particularly with the incorporation of the political elements dragging then-French President Sarkozy into the mix. And just like a legal thriller, when it seemed like things were finally coming together in resolution, the indomitable French judiciary stepped in with a curve ball: French law allows magistrates to unilaterally decide that a case is not over, even if the parties have agreed that it is, if they think laws have been broken. And so it continued until, finally and almost rather anticlimactically despite its lengthy disposition, the storm blew itself it out and everything stopped – leaving, quite literally, death, shattered reputations, and devastation in its wake.

This was a long, drawn-out, Affair – and so, the book. Between the law, the politics (both national and familial), and the personalities, the Bettencourt Affair was a hot mess of deception, he said/she said, scandalous whispers and bitter recriminations from start to finish – and even before and after those. It made for some very entertaining (and often jaw-droppingly unbelievable) reading – but it was also exhausting, and truth be told, I was glad when I finally reached the end. The jealousy, the back-biting, the secrets – I wouldn’t put myself in any of these people’s shoes for all the money in their pockets (and Swiss bank accounts, and hidden tax shelters, and private islands)… If ever anyone needed proof that money doesn’t buy happiness, this would be the tale to show them. This is, more than anything, a tale of frustrated and unreturned feelings: if Eugene had been a different father to Liliane, would she in turn have been a different mother and not felt the need to keep doling out gifts to Banier – a man who, himself, had an indifferent mother and abusive father? Does the whole Affair lie at the feet of jealousy and little-lost-child feelings that the major parties were never able to overcome? Or is it simply a tale of greed and power and the desperate land-grabs by so many for a piece of the L’Oreal fortune? Theories abound, but remain theories. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle (as it so often does), varying depending on who you ask (again, as it so often does). The story raises as many questions as it answers, so if you are looking for a tidy resolution, you’ll likely be frustrated by it. But if you are intrigued by interpersonal politics and the war of personalities, this one may just be for you…

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