Simon has a talent for discovering ... unusual books. I always read his reviews and see what books I can include in my own list. When I read about La Grande Thérèse by Hilary Spurling, I was - I was cautious. Surely such a grand scandal cannot be true? can people be thus trusting (and eager to get a share in imaginative proceeds?)
My before-the-holidays fried brain was aching for a light and entertaining reading (and a short one at that!), so this book was perfect for the job...
La Grande Thérèse is Thérèse Humbert, a woman of humble origins, who managed to accumulate extreme wealth through story-telling - but no simple story-telling. With the promise of an inheritance that would eventually reach into the hundreds of millions of francs, she managed to receive loans from everyone interested in getting their money back multiplied by a respectable interest rate. Together with her father-in-law, who was also her uncle, who was also an important minister of justice in France at the time, they presented a legitimate image of a trustworthy family, complete with a strongbox where the "bearer bonds" of the inheritance were kept. The rise of the Humberts was spectacular, as was their demise (of course...).
I found the story very intriguing, for the simple fact that I had never heard of it. And sure enough, no-one in France wants to know about it. Spurling herself was actually writing a biography on Matisse, when she happened to stumble upon information on Thérèse (Matisse and his in-laws were used as scapegoats after the scandal broke out). In the end, she knew she would have to search for Thérèse, but soon became aware of the difficulty to retrieve information, as this particular scandal almost brought down the Third Republic in France - as such, no one wanted to remember it.
The short length of the book makes for a pleasant reading. Whether this is the true account of Therese's story, however, I can't say I was convinced. Spurling maintains that she has invented nothing and lists the names of some of her sources in general but with no indication for the individual quotations, leaving me yearning for more in-depth and background information that would complement the story. Perhaps things happened the way they are described, perhaps there was some literary allowance for more effect (but then again, wasn't the Madoff scandal along these lines?). Either way, the story is incredible and a testament to human weakness - greed on the one hand and naivety on the other, making for an entertaining story!