Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804
The book opens with a conversation in the blue room between Tony Falcone and Andree Despierre, who have just made love. Andree asks Tony if he loves her: “Could you spend the rest of your life with me?” Tony answers Andree lazily, mechanically, “Of course”; then he sees Nicholas, Andree’s husband, crossing the square toward the hotel. Terrified of discovery, Tony escapes through a skylight, leaving his mistress to pacify her husband. The reader quickly discovers that this scene, from which the plot springs, is not taking place in the present; Tony is re-creating the memory in response to interrogation. Flashbacks from his past are interspersed with the comments and questions of his interrogators. On that particular August 2, Tony returned to his home in Saint Justin-du-Loup and arranged to take his wife, Gisele, and his six-year-old daughter, Marianne, to the seaside for a three-week holiday.
In the next section of the book, Judge Diem, who also has a wife and a baby—but who cannot understand Tony, though they are much of an age—gets him to re-create the events prior to August 2. Tony and his brother, Vincente Falcone, the owner of the Hotel des Voyageurs, are sons of an immigrant Italian bricklayer. They went to school with Nicholas Despierre (then a fat, pasty, epileptic child, the only son of the richest family in the village) and Andree Formier, “the great, tall girl from the Chateau.” Andree’s father, the doctor, had died heroically in a concentration camp; the Chateau was dilapidated and Andree and her mother were poor and hungry. By the time that Tony returns to the area with his wife to set up a business in the village, Andree has married Nicholas and successfully banished her mother-in-law, Madame Despierre, from the shop to her bungalow at the bottom of the garden. The liaison with Tony begins when he stops to help start the Despierres’ Citroen, which has had a flat tire on the way to Triant. Andree seduces him—not a difficult task as he is a handsome man and a casually unfaithful husband. Andree announces that she has always longed for Tony, and they meet once a month in the blue room at Vincente’s hotel. Vincente and his wife, Lucia, are disapproving but loyal and silent, and the assignations continue until the Thursday afternoon when Andree’s husband appears, the August 2 which was re-created in the first part of the book.
After his narrow escape from discovery, Tony avoids the village store, ignores Andree, and hopes that nothing will disrupt the routine of family and work which give meaning to his life. Nevertheless, he feels threatened. Then one day, the Postmaster hands him local, anonymous letters: “I haven’t forgotten. I love you.” “Soon. I love you.”
The letters are only the beginning. Nicholas dies suddenly, and an anonymous letter spurs the police into exhuming the body. They discover that he was poisoned with strychnine.
In December, Tony receives another letter: “Happy Our Year.” Little Marianne Falcone comes home from school one day to find her mother dying in agony. Strychnine is discovered in the half-eaten pot of plum jelly. For Judge Diem, Tony re-creates that day, though he persists in denying the existence of the letters: Before going to work Tony took Marianne to school, then joined the customers at the village shop. He was served first, and Andree gave to him a pot of jam which she said that Gisele had ordered. Tony left it in the kitchen for his wife and returned that evening to find her dead.
After a long imprisonment, several court appearances, and the elaborate reconstruction which largely forms the novel, the lovers are tried. Tony discovers that the village has always known about his affair with Andree and sympathized with Gisele. Piece by piece, the evidence that they give places him in jeopardy. There was strychnine in his shed but also there was some in the Despierres’ storeroom; the Postmaster remembers giving Tony the letters, and Andree has admitted to writing them. Madame Despierre’s evidence is crucial; to ensure that both lovers pay for her son’s death, she lies. When Andree took over the store on the morning of Gisele’s death, according to Madame Despierre, customers were already waiting and the new consignment of jam was still in its package. Thus Tony took home an untouched jar of jam; Andree, if one accepts her mother-in-law’s evidence, would have had to open the package and add strychnine to the jelly while customers waited in the shop. Andree is therefore found guilty only of her husband’s death; Tony is found guilty of murdering Gisele. Both are sentenced to life imprisonment. The novel ends, as it began, with Andree speaking: “You see, Tony, we’ll never be parted now!”