The story revolves around Agnes, who appeared one day at the cathedral at Chartres and stayed for twenty years, finding a place in the town and gaining friends along the way. How she came to be there, and how her life begins to unravel, are slowly unfolded. Agnes herself is something of an enigma. She takes on odd cleaning jobs to make ends meet, both at the cathedral and for various other people, and at first she seems to have no personality, being very compliant and passive. She appears to be mentally deficient (she can’t read, for instance), yet she makes some astute observations and notices when people need help. She’s very quiet, yet has numerous friends. She failed to learn to read as a child, yet now she learns very quickly. She was badly treated at her convent orphanage, had a baby at fifteen and was sectioned afterwards, yet is quite open and trusting in her dealings with people. I found her not very believable, and couldn’t get interested in her.
Of the other characters, most are caricatures, without any depth to them at all, and no, telling us their whole history the first time we meet them doesn’t give them depth or make them credible, it just makes the book stodgy and (frankly) boring. Once the book gets past the midpoint and the dumping of information wholesale is no longer deemed necessary, the story picks up a little speed. Even so, the unfolding plot is too predictable to be interesting and the ending was, frankly, quite unbelievable.
I know I’m a picky reader, and there’s some excellent writing in here, amid the stodge and the cartoon-like behaviour of some of the characters, and the French setting may appeal to some readers (although apart from the odd word tossed in, like patisserie, very little French atmosphere seeped through). I’m sure there’s meant to be some profound parallel between the main character’s life and the labyrinth on the cathedral floor, although I’m not sure what it is. I daresay the meaning whizzed over my head. Recommended for anyone who enjoys literary fiction and is less fussed than me about a heavy writing style, but for me it was only three stars.