Author and former Martha Stewart Books editor Sanaë Lemoine's delicious debut novel, The Margot Affair, transports you to Paris one bite at a time.

By Elyse Moody
June 15, 2020
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the Margot Affair book cover
Credit: Hogarth

You're sitting at a sidewalk café across from the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, sipping a citron pressé, a freshly squeezed glass of lemonade thick with juicy pulp, or, if you'd rather, dipping a cinnamon-flecked speculoos cookie into a cup of coffee. That's where Sanaë Lemoine's escapist debut novel, The Margot Affair ($24.30, amazon.com), plunks you down as it opens.

After that post-card-perfect moment, the drama builds. The two women enjoying alfresco drinks are a mother and daughter, and they're moments away from spotting a woman in Roger Vivier pumps who will turn their lives upside down. Seventeen-year-old Margot, Lemoine's protagonist and storyteller, has never seen this woman before, but can tell that the sight of her shakes her actress mother, Anouk. Then Anouk utters a bombshell: The woman is Margot's father's wife. Margot has always known that her politician father had another family, but the seeing his wife in the flesh makes it real. From here, Margot sets out to get her due, and causes plenty of heartbreak and collateral damage (no spoilers here!) along the way.

Thanks to Lemoine's special expertise, however, Margot's crash course in adult affairs is infused with more than jealousy and desire. It's steeped in the flavors of French food. Born in Paris and raised in France and Australia by a French father and Japanese mother, Lemoine grew up "in a family of home cooks," she says. She has lived in New York City since 2011, working as a recipe developer and editor at Martha Stewart Books and Phaidon Press. But writing The Margot Affair took her right back to her childhood.

"Food was a bridge to my home country, a source of inspiration as I sought to create a textured and sensual experience for my reader," Lemoine says. "But I didn't want the novel to feel like a travelogue or an outsider's perspective of French cuisine. Margot is French and has always lived in Paris, so it was important to focus on simple, humble dishes, the kind you would indeed eat at home."

And along with the simmering plot, those dishes are what make this novel so alluring. For Margot's birthday, for instance, Anouk makes her hot chocolate with whole milk, cream, and pieces of dark chocolate, with buttered toast for dipping. At summer dinners with their friends, they dine on tomato tarts with parsley pesto, salads of thinly sliced fennel marinated in lemon dressing,  and homemade pear clafoutis. That last one is particularly key to the plot. When another character invites Margot over, she greets Margot with a clafoutis. "The entire apartment smells of butter and stewed fruit," says Lemoine. That's intentional: Margot, whose mother has never been much of a cook, "is immediately drawn into the warmth of those scents," the author explains. The food makes Margot more trusting—which gets her into trouble.

Ask Lemoine what tastes and smells immediately transport her to Paris, and you get a similar list: "The smell of rotisserie chicken on the streets, a piece of fresh baguette slathered with salted butter and the crunch of salt crystals, the earthy scent of buckwheat sizzling on a griddle for galettes," she says. "We moved to Australia when I was four, but returned to France in the summers. I still remember getting off the plane after a long flight and going directly to Poilâne bakery with our luggage. We'd arrive at opening and pick up a chausson aux pommes, hot from the oven, to eat for breakfast."

You may not be able to get to Poilâne, but you'll want to have a snack on hand when you crack her novel. It's going to make you very hungry.

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