INTRODUCTION BY LESA HOLSTINE
It’s obvious how much Louise Penny and her creations are admired. Robin Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s Bookstore, and discussion leader here for The Cruelest Month, was recently quoted in the Ann Arbor Observer. “In my twenty-one years of selling books, I’ve never encountered the passion that people feel for Penny.”
In this forum, readers, librarians, editors, booksellers and publicists have discussed Louise Penny’s books. We’ve talked about Penny herself, how we met her, and how we’ve all grown to see her as a friend. We’ve discussed the settings, whether Three Pines, Montréal, Québec or a monastery. We’ve grown to love her characters; Armand Gamache, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, Reine-Marie, Clara, Ruth, Myrna, Gabri, Olivier, even a duck. And perhaps we’ve all discovered it’s hard to separate Louise Penny, the author and friend, from Three Pines, a place of comfort, where Gamache and his friends return time and again. Do we share a passion for Louise Penny because of who she is, or because of who she is and the gift of the world she has given us?
In How the Light Gets In, Armand Gamache acknowledges that Three Pines is not Eden. “Three Pines, he knew, was not immune to dreadful loss. To sorrow and pain. What Three Pines had wasn’t immunity but a rare ability to heal. And that’s what they offered him.”
Before we can heal, we must suffer. Louise Penny’s first nine books are a finished circle in themselves. We’ve gone from an introduction to Three Pines and Gamache, meeting them both in Still Life. We’ve watched him struggle with past history in the Sûreté du Québec, watched the situation there grow worse, and, now, in How the Light Gets In, we see the culmination of the epic battle between forces, the battle between good and evil. And, of course, it culminates in Three Pines.
One of the underlying story cycles of this series is finished. Gamache and Three Pines will go on, both somewhat changed from their experiences. I see the series as a Venn diagram. There is overlap. Gamache, Three Pines, many of the characters. We still need to find out what happens to Peter and Clara. But the first nine books will always be “Before the events of How the Light Gets In,” while the next books will be, “After the events of How the Light Gets In.”
Thank you for reading with us, discussing Louise Penny’s amazing series. It’s been an honor and privilege to participate in these discussions.
Ch. 1-22: The opening chapter introduces a woman who remains a mystery in the first half of the book. Audrey Villeneuve’s story will come to light in the second half. Here, we only see her as a terrified driver viewing the cracks in the Ville-Marie Tunnel. When Gamache questions later, he learns she was a possible suicide victim and a clerk in the roads division of the Ministry of Transport. Audrey Villeneuve’s storyline is kept for the second half of the book.
The second storyline is introduced in chapter two. Constance PIneault, a friend of Myrna’s, leaves the village of Three Pines, with promises to return for Christmas. She left with a statement about playing hockey as a child, seeing it as revealing a secret. Her failure to appear causes Myrna, owner of the bookstore, to contact Gamache.
In chapter three, we learn that Chief Inspector Armand Gamache’s homicide division is under the gun. Chief Inspector Francoeur has torn it apart. The old guard, beginning with Jean-Guy Beauvoir, once Gamache’s protégé, has been transferred out, leaving Isabelle Lacoste and a group of rabble who have been transferred in. The most successful homicide team in the nation has been gutted, and Jean-Guy is emotionally destroyed, addicted to pills. Instead of a crack team, Gamache has a squad whose members are surprised to learn that “he actually believed it. Believed the Sûreté du Québec was a great and effective police force. A breakwater between the citizens and those who would do them harm.” We see that only Lacoste remains loyal to Gamache, the only one within the division who still respects him.
The three storylines slowly come together as Gamache responds to Myrna’s request. He and Lacoste leave for Three Pines. Along the way, they observe a body, later learned to be Audrey Villeneuve’s, being retrieved from the waters of the St. Lawrence.
When Constance Pineault did not show up in Three Pines, Myrna was worried about the seventy-seven-year-old woman. It’s only then that she reveals Constance’s true identity. She was one of the famous Ouellet Quintuplets, once the most famous children in Canada, born to a simple farmer and his wife. When Gamache and Lacoste find Constance murdered in her home in Montréal, it leads to a fascinating story about the Quints. It also leads to a murder investigation, and Gamache agrees to handle it for his counterpart in the Montréal homicide division.
The timing for a murder investigation is perfect, as it provides an opportunity for Gamache to smuggle two friends into Three Pines. Thérèse Brunel, a Superintendent in the Sûreté, and her husband, Jérôme, a retired doctor turned cyber junkie, are helping Gamache dig for answers as to what’s truly going on in the police force. But Jérôme’s computer searches have caught unwanted attention, and it’s dangerous for everyone involved. Three Pines makes the perfect refuge. Or does it? They are safe, but also stuck.
A murder investigation involving a woman whose childhood was so celebrated that she doesn’t seem real. A build-up of tension as Gamache and his few allies dig for dangerous information. A seemingly unrelated death. A name from the past – Arnot. And, the first half of How the Light Gets In ends with Superintendent Francoeur and Inspector Tessier discussing the plot against Gamache, and their use of Jean-Guy Beauvoir. As they send him on raids, ply him with pills, play on his addiction, they see him as the unexploded bomb that could destroy Gamache.
Ch. 23-end: Here’s my recap for you. Or maybe it should be my first question. Are you as emotionally drained after finishing How the Light Gets In as I am? Now, to the actual recap of the book in which Louise Penny unites us with Gamache and the villagers as we wait and prepare, building the tension until it’s so unbearable it has to conclude, as she says, with an explosive ending. Do not read this recap or conclusion if you have not finished the book. This recap is a spoiler.
Thérèse Brunel continues to tell her husband, Jérôme, the terrible story of the treachery at the top of the Sûreté du Québec, and Gamache’s actions that led both to the people’s admiration and to continuing enmity from some of the leadership. And then Gamache adds an unknown quantity to the mixture in Three Pines. He brings in Agent Yvette Nichol, who no one, not even Gamache, knows if he can trust.
It’s the beginning of a long stretch of tension in the book. No one knows if they can trust Nichol, but they need her to set up computer equipment so they can reach out from the isolated village and uncover hidden computer files from the Sûreté.
The only break from the tension comes when Gamache turns back to the investigation of the Ouellet murder, handing Constance’s Christmas presents out to the villagers. It’s Myrna’s gift of a tuque, a hat, that begins to prey on his mind, leading him to search for a missing member of the family, someone who could be a killer. It’s that search for answers that leads him back to Montréal, first to drop off the tuque so he can check on DNA, and then to his department at the Sûreté, where he dismisses the entire staff, effectively shutting it down, and tells Inspector Lacoste he will announcing his resignation in the next day or two.
But his trip back to the Sûreté a second time is shocking, when Jean-Guy Beauvoir turns on him and threatens him with a gun, blaming Gamache for everything, even in the face of the man who says he loves him. Nevertheless, Gamache finishes his errands, meeting with those who may have clues to the story of the Ouellet Quintuplets, before returning to Three Pines.
When they set in motion the plan to dig into those computer files, Gamache and his team are horrified to discover that the plot they’re investigating leads all the way to the Premier of Québec. As they begin to unravel the power grab related to money, death, and a scheme to kill thousands in order to create a new country, the computer hackers in Three Pines attract the attention of the police in the Sûreté. But it’s too late. Gamache’s small group have linked the stories of corruption to top leadership and even the murder of Audrey Villeneuve, who knew more than she should. It’s a story of allowing construction projects to go unfulfilled so they can destroy a dam, a tunnel or a bridge. And it will take one more trip to Montréal for Gamache to wrap up the loose ends. Warning the Brunels and Agent Nichol to stay hidden, he leaves Three Pines hoping to lead Francoeur to follow him. After he’s gone, Myrna and the villagers show up to lead the Brunels and Nichol to safety.
I was so torn. Matthew 10:36 is a recurring quote and theme in the series. “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” It’s so important in this series, and this particular book.
But this time, I picked a more positive one. It’s Gamache, reflecting on the dog, Henri. “But he realized Henri already knew all he’d ever need. He knew he was loved. And he knew how to love.”
My favorite quote now is not one I would have picked a year ago when I first read How the Light Gets In. It’s actually Ruth’s statement to Jean-Guy when he brings Francouer’s forces to Three Pines. In talking about Rosa, Ruth actually talks about so much more, as she often does. She talks about Jean-Guy, and, now we know, she talks about the next book in the series, hinting at future events.
Ruth says, “She took the long way home. Some do, you know. They seem lost. Sometimes they might even head off in the wrong direction. Lots of people give up, saying they’re gone forever, but I don’t believe that. Some make it home, eventually.”
All the storylines quickly begin to converge. While Gamache wraps up the investigation involving Audrey Villeneuve, he learns why she was murdered. She was about to tell the wrong person, the Premier, Georges Renard, about the structural weakness of the Champlain Bridge. Gamache warns Lacoste to close that bridge before it’s blown up. In the meantime, Myrna wraps up the story of Constance Ouellet and her siblings, telling the story of Gamache’s discovery that there was one more child, a younger son, who grew to hate his sisters, and killed some of them. And, Francouer, Tessier, and a small team head to Three Pines, led by Jean-Guy Beauvoir.
While the villagers put off the police, hiding the Brunels and Nichol, Gamache is on a mad dash back to Three Pines. But Francouer and Tessier are waiting for him. While they think they have him trapped, he jeers at them, informing them his announcement of his resignation was a signal to his former officers, still loyal to him, to take over the Sûreté du Québec. He and Francouer fight to the death, and Gamache dashes toward the schoolhouse to save Jean-Guy from dying in an explosion that has been rigged. But, Jean-Guy, realizing that Gamache does love him, turns up, and is forced to shoot Gamache to stop him from entering the schoolhouse, and blowing himself up when he opens the door.
The final scenes of the wedding and reception for Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Annie Gamache are set in Three Pines after Gamache’s recuperation and Jean-Guy’s stint in rehab. And, even though Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache have retired to Three Pines, Reine-Marie informs Jean-Guy that Armand might retire, but he can’t quit.
- What did you know about the Dionne Quintuplets, the model for the Ouellets?
- Henri, Ruth, and Rosa often serve to alleviate the tension in the book, adding a little humor. I like comments such as “Henri, while a handsome dog, would never get into Harvard.” Do you have a favorite humorous scene or moment in this first half of the book?
- In describing Clara and housework, Penny says, “Clara Morrow was not someone who liked housework. What she liked was magic. Water into foam. Dirty dishes into clean. A blank canvas into a work of art. It wasn’t change she liked so much as metamorphosis.” How do you see this statement relate to Three Pines and the people who end up there?
- What do you think Gamache meant when he said, “He wondered in a moment that startled him, whether that’s what this little village was. The end of the road? And like most ends, not an end at all.”
- Over and over in the first half of the book, Penny emphasizes safety versus freedom, with Gamache and the Brunels in Three Pines, the Quints, the Crees. “They were safe, but also stuck, like the Quints. Made safe, given everything they wanted, except freedom.” How do you see safety versus freedom?
- Let’s talk about celebrity. Myrna looks at the Quints and says she wouldn’t wish celebrity on anyone. How do people suffer because of their celebrity?
- The shattered relationship between Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Annie Gamache is illustrated in the sad scene in which they sit in cars outside each other’s homes. In Jean-Guy’s case, “Now he was hungry. Starving. And he stank. The whole car reeked. He could feel his clammy undershirt sticking to him. Molding itself there, like a second skin.” At this point in the book, how do you feel about Jean-Guy Beauvoir?
- Ruth’s poem, “Alas,” can refer to so many people, although we now know she wrote it about Virginia Ouellet. Who do you think of in the book when you read “Who hurt you once/so far beyond repair/that you would greet each overture/with curling lip?”
- Did you anticipate the brazen plot Renard had hatched? Before reading it, what did you think the plot was all about?
- Let’s talk about the Ouellette storyline. Who did you think the killer was, and why?
- My favorite scene in the book wasn’t the wedding, but the moment after Thérèse Brunel opens the door to find Myrna there to take them to a safe place, and sees Clara, Gabri, Olivier, and Ruth and Rosa. “The end of the road.” What was your favorite moment in the book, and why?
- Who showed the most courage in the book, and why? Gamache, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, the villagers? Someone else?
- What did you think was happening when Gamache told Lacoste he was resigning?
- Talk about “Old sins have long shadows.”
- What do Ruth and Rosa mean to you?
- In a book with so many surprises, which one stood out for you?