This lyrical book, set in rural France, weaves together three love stories: one between two modern French teens, and two involving men over age 60 devastated by the same catastrophe during World War II. Zazoo, the 13-year-old protagonist, learns a great deal about life, death, war, love and reconciliation. She also learns that the same person can be both good and bad, kind and cruel.
Zazoo is a Vietnamese orphan adopted as a toddler by a Frenchman named Pierre, then 67 and now 78. She affectionately calls him Grand-Pierre (grand-père is French for grandfather). The two live in an old stone mill on a canal, where Grand-Pierre tends the lock. The canal is Zazoo’s natural habitat: she swims underwater and rows the small, flat-bottomed boat Grand-Pierre built for her. Zazoo’s serious, contemplative nature is heightened by her worries about Grand-Pierre’s waning memory. He claims that she saved him from the ghosts of his past, and her gentle compassion toward him is moving.
Early one morning, a handsome 16-year-old stranger named Marius shows up on his bicycle. He asks Zazoo a puzzling question about the village pharmacist, Félix Klein, a gray-haired Jew in his early 60s. Marius’s question starts a friendship between Zazoo and Félix, in which he helps her correspond with Marius, who lives in Paris. Over time, Félix tells Zazoo some of the village’s darker secrets, such as why Grand-Pierre refuses to go into town (especially to the pharmacy), and why some residents consider Grand-Pierre a hero but others call him the Cemetery. Grand-Pierre was a sharpshooter during the war, and the German troops carried out reprisals. Even though Grand-Pierre saved Félix’s life afterward, Félix still blames him for the deaths of his entire family, including his older sister, whom Grand-Pierre loved.
The novel is full of subtle echoes and reflections between the present and the past, between war in France and war in Vietnam, between first love now and enduring first love from long ago. As Zazoo helps the older men bridge the agonizing rift between them, she and her best friend reconcile their own disagreement. Best of all, Zazoo is proven wrong in her assumption that a 62-year-old man is too old for love.