Joanna Scott’s De Potter’s Grand Tour is imminently appealing on multiple levels: as a capsule of the relic collection frenzy of the Gilded Age, as a speculative mystery surrounding the disappearance of Scott’s great-grandfather and as a study of a man who lived a double life, perhaps twice over. Yet far removed in time and lacking hard facts, the novel tends to read as a story disengaged with its main character. The film seems more intent on telling the love story of Scott’s great-grandparents than in exploring answers to its own questions.

When we first meet Armand de Potter, he is a French instructor at an all-girls school in upstate New York. His past is fuzzy. He may or may not be descended from Belgian aristocracy, but his assumed sophistication and exoticism reels in young student Amy (who Armand, ever the personal reinventor, rechristens Aimée) and the two are quickly married. Armand and Aimée found De Potter Tours and escort wealthy Americans across Europe and North Africa, and while Aimée details the history of these ancient places, her husband scours markets for antiquities to send to the University of Pennsylvania Museum to add to the “Armand de Potter Collection.” His greatest desire is to be recognized as a scholarly curator, respected by academia and high society alike. He moves Aimée and his young son, Victor, into a lavish Cannes villa and presents himself as the pillar of aristocracy, but Armand lives in fear of being exposed as a fraud in every aspect of his life.

The specter of Armand’s demise hangs over the entirety of the novel, with his disappearance aboard a steamship headed for Greece in 1905 first mentioned in only the second chapter. The event itself happens about halfway into the novel and the remainder details the fallout, with Aimée herself investigating and coming to terms with who her husband really was. This is where Scott disappoints most. Armand is necessarily thinly drawn so as to allow a sporadic unveiling of both his true self and the “reality” of what he did after last being seen standing on the railing of the ship. But Aimée is little more than a devoted wife who forgives, if not deludes herself about, her beloved husband. In one moment, she sees his pretense clearly and realizes that “everything about his life had been a ruse.” But this fury is immediately supplanted by blind love, even as she is left to care for a young son when all of her bank accounts are frozen.

Scott goes to great lengths to paint her great-grandfather as not only a curator of fine, worldly things but as a man who actively encouraged a worldly persona for himself. He is not merely collecting for collecting’s sake, or even for his own enjoyment. The task of ferreting out small wonders is an extension of his quest for respect, because he keeps no more of these items than is needed to sufficiently adorn his home. The rest is immediately sent away, not upon request but in the hopes that the name De Potter will be stamped upon it for all to see. There is something incredibly self-centered and self-serving in this, but Scott never attempts to analyze it, which may be the risk when writing about family members shrouded in beloved mystery.

Peppered as the novel is with family photos and the events drawn from Aimée’s multi-volume diaries, the impression we have of Armand, Aimée and their lives is likely just as concrete as Scott’s, but that doesn’t erase the overwhelmingly glossed-over feel that accompanies the final chapters. For all the speculation that Scott necessarily does regarding the fate of her great-grandfather, the reality is that her version of the story here provides Armand with little more of a second life than can be summarized in two sentences. Given Armand’s penchant for extravagance and eccentricity, a quiet life in relative hiding seems unlikely and, frankly, unbelievable.

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