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Background for Love: An edifying romance on the French Riviera

Panthenon Press-founder Helen Wolff wrote only one novel before dedicating her life to others' work: Background for Love; and it's a treat.

Photo: Helen Wolff

Every summer, the beach read question poses itself anew: edifying or entertaining? One canny rediscovery ticks both boxes simultaneously. In the 1930s, a young woman and her older lover drive from Germany to the French Riviera, eagerly savouring the intimacy of travel and the luxury he affords. Yet it turns out they had different trips in mind.

Put off by his socialite roving and old-fashioned masculinity, she rents herself a beachside cottage, living independently among new friends and an adopted kitten. Finally, he comes to his senses: but is it too late? This is a completely lovely novel, one enriched by wise reflections on what it means for a place to be romantic.

But it is also a piece of history, as we learn in a long afterword by Berlin-based historian Marion Detjen: this is the only novel written by one of America’s most important literary publishers. Wolff – who led Pantheon Press after fleeing the Nazis with her husband – ultimately dedicated her life to other people’s writing. But she undeniably had talent galore.