The book opens with the narrator leafing through photographs of relatives he doesn't know in his grandmother’s house in Saranza, a Russian town on the border of the steppe. His grandmother, Charlotte Lemonnier, comes in and starts talking about the photographs and her memories to the boy and his sister. The novel is characterized by stories like this: a collection of Charlotte’s memories and the narrator’s memories, intertwining so that the text moves seamlessly through their lives in a dreamlike fashion. The movement between Charlotte's French past and the Soviet present causes conflict in the boy's identity as the novel explores both sides of his heritage.
Charlotte begins the novel by transporting her grandchildren to the French‘Atlantis’ during the flooding of Paris in 1910. So begins the narrator’s desire to learn all about this mysterious French past. He describes the town of Saranza in-between these stories. It is a quiet town bordering the Russian steppe that is lined with the old izba , traditional Russian houses made of logs. The town is a strange mixture of these old relics and the new regime style that discards any excess or superfluous design, showcasing the theme of the clash between past and present.
At the return of autumn, the boy narrator and his sister return to their hometown, an unnamed industrial, Stalinist-style city on the banks of the Volga. He quickly falls back into the pace of Russian life with its schooling and paramilitary exercises. He becomes confused by the conflicting images with which he has been presented: his grandmother's romanticised French image of Tsar Nicholas II versus“Nicholas the Bloody” as taught at his Russian school.
The narration reveals more of Charlotte’s early life. After the death of her father Norbert, her widowed mother Albertine becomes unstable, making visits to Paris only to insist on returning to Russia. It is the grave of her husband that keeps bringing her back to the Siberia town Boyarsk along with Charlotte. Young Charlotte, roughlyage nine, begins to give French lessons to the Governor of Boyarsk's daughter. She becomes caretaker to her mother, who is revealed as a morphine addict. After several relapses, Albertine takes Charlotte with her back to France. But in July 1914, Albertine temporarily moves back to Siberia when Charlotte is eleven to put an end to her Siberian life. She never returns to France. Then war came and Charlotte’s only caretaker, her uncle Vincent, is killed in battle.
Time jumps ahead to 1921 where Charlotte is chosen to go to Russia as a Red Cross nurse because she can speak both French and Russian. Years pass with only the description of wartime hardship and the images of the countless mutilated soldiers that fall under Charlotte’s care. Charlotte decides to return to the town of her childhood, Boyarsk, to see the fate of the izba where she and her mother once lived. She comes across an old grizzled woman living there only to find that it is her mother. When Charlotte tries to take her mother and leave Russia, the government of Boyarsk seizes her papers and refuses to return them. Mother and daughter barely survive through the winter living on dried plants. In May, fearing starvation, Albertine and Charlotte flee the town and begin working on a Siberian farm. Albertine dies two years later and soon after that Charlotte marries a Russian man named Fyodor and they settle in the town of Bukhara.
Coming back to the present, the story moves into more of Charlotte’s dreamy stories of France through her “Siberian suitcase” filled with newspaper clippings. She talks of royalty, of President Félix Faure dying in the arms of his mistress, of restaurants, revolutions, etc. Back in his house, the narrator overhears his parents and other relatives talking ofCharlotte. Because he is fourteen years old, they tolerate his presence as they plunge into the details of the arrest of Fyodor.
Fyodor is dressed in the red outfit of Father Christmas to entertain his children on New Year's Eve when he is arrested. Although the reason is fuzzy, it is hinted at that the arrest is partially because of Charlotte’s “crime” of being French. Thus, Fyodor could be accused of being a French spy. He is away supposedly temporarily to be re initiated into the Party, however the next time he sees Charlotte is in four years, after the war.
A short time after Fyodor’s arrest, Germans bomb the city where Charlotte and her son and daughter are living. They leave the house and escape to the railway, running away from the explosions and debris of the city. As Charlotte begins to fall asleep on the last train out of the city, she realizes that she brought the “Siberian suitcase” rather than the suitcase of warm clothes and food she had packed that morning. By chance, this suitcase becomes the last physical link between Charlotte and her life in France.
She and the children settle in a town 100 km away from the destroyed city where she works again as a nurse, caring for the wounded soldiers fourteen hours a day. In the midst of this constant presence of dying soldiers, Charlotte receives word of Fyodor’s death on the front. Soon after she receives a second note of death, and begins to hope that her husband is alive. Fyodor indeed returns to Saranza after Japan was defeated in September 1945. Less than a year later, he dies of his wounds.
After returning from Saranza, the young narrator searches hungrily for all the information in his city about France. His obsession with France and the past alienates him from his classmates, making him a loner. After being taunted and teased by his peers, he meets another loner nicknamed Pashka, and the two become friends only on the basis that they understand each other’s isolation.
The next summer, the narrator returns alone to Saranza because his sister is studying in Moscow. His fifteenth year marks the start of the deterioration of the relationship between him and Charlotte. He is no longer an innocent youth and longs to return to feeling the“magic” of Charlotte’s stories that he did when he was young. He becomes angry at Charlotte’s retelling of the past, confused between this past and the harsh Russia he lives in. At the very end of August, only a few days before his departure from Saranza, he mends his bond with Charlotte. All of a sudden he realized the beauty of this French past, and he and Charlotte understand each other again.
Back in his hometown situated by the Volga, the narrator’s mother goes to the hospital for some tests. The narrator is reveling in the freedom of his mother’s absence when he overhears a classmate saying that his mother is dead. In February, only months after his mother dies, his father Nikolai dies of a heart attack. It is not his parents’ deathsbut his aunt’s arrival that changes his outlook on life. His aunt is a tough, no-nonsense, resourceful woman who shoes him to love Russia. Through her, he sees the harshness, the violence, and the darkness of Russia, yet he loves it still. As he says on page 144, “The blacker the Russia I was discovering turned out to be, the more violent my attachment became.” As he moves closer to his Russian heritage, he pushes away the French.
After the now fifteen-year-old narrator accepts and loves Russia, he immediately becomes accepted by the peers that once scorned him. In fact, his“Frenchness” turns into a gift. He entertains his classmates with all the information he has learned about France, which makes him no longer a loner but alienates him from Pashka. In the cruel world of teenagers, he openly scorns Pashka to become accepted.
It is on the Mountain of Joy, the mountain hideaway where all the teenagers go to dance and flirt, that the narrator has his first romantic encounter, his first experience of“physical love.” It is a very awkward encounter, and he is humiliated afterward when his classmates make fun of him for not knowing “how to make love” on page 170. It seems to the narrator that his “French implant” has made him an outcast, even among women. Without warning he takes a train to Saranza to put an end to this French nuisance.
On the way to Saranza, the boy thinks of all the things he will yell at Charlotte for. He feels like his French sensibility has“split reality in two” (Makine, 174). But when he abruptly arrives, she is calm and acts undisturbed. While the narrator is leaning on the balcony, Charlotte leans beside him and starts talking of some of the things she saw during the war. They begin to walk out far past the town and end up at the Sumra, a small stream several miles away from Saranza. She addressed the narrator as “Alyosha” and tells him that even after all of her years in Russia, she still can’t seem to understand her adopted country; its harshness still seems foreign. Yet at the same time, she understands it more than the Russians, for she has seen the solitude of that country and its people. As the narrator walks back to Saranza with his grandmother, he feels as though the Russian and French within him now live in peace, put to rest by Charlotte's words.
Charlotte and her grandson spend their last summer together in peace. They walk down to the banks of the Sumra every day and read underneath the shade, speaking in French, talking about everything. Charlotte tells him about when she was raped in her youth. She was in the desert when a young Uzbek man forced her down. When the rape was over, he tried to shoot her in the head, but it only grazed her temple. Left to die out in the desert, she explains to the narrator that it was a saiga , a desert antelope, which saved her. After following the saiga , she slept pressed up against it at night, and its body heat saved her from the desert cold. The next morning she wandered until she found a lake, where unknown travelers found her the next day. It was the rape that produced the narrator’s Uncle Sergei, but Charlotte explains that she and Fyodor loved and accepted him as their first-born son.
The rest of the summer passes like this until suddenly the narrator jumps ahead to ten years in the future. He is twenty-five and has not seen Charlotte since that last summer of his fifteenth year. He is about to study abroad to Europe and is telling Charlotte that she should come along to France with him. Despite France meaning the world to her, she calmly refuses. It is then, that the narrator understands“what France meant to her” (Makine, 204)
Now it is twenty years past his summer in Saranza, and the narrator is roughly thirty-five. His career as a radio broadcaster in a German city is over, and he begins to wander aimlessly throughout Europe. As soon as he becomes used to the routine of a place: its sights, smells, and sounds, he leaves immediately. He begins to have fleeting thoughts of suicide, accepting it as a way out of routine. Amidst this mental distress he settles in a small apartment in Paris. It is unclear what happens in Paris, however he comes down with a fever and drifts in and out of reality, eventually making a temporary home inside a family tomb in a cemetery. After feverishly wondering like a madman in Paris, he collapses by the river and sees a plaque inscribes with the words“Flood Level. January 1910.” (Makine, 214)
This plaque brings back a flood of memories of France and his Russian summers. But most importantly, it reminds him of Charlotte, his French grandmother. He is struck by the desire to write and begins writing a book titled Charlotte Lemonnier: Biographical Notes. The narrator begins to live on the hope of publishing this book and bringing Charlotte back to France.
Three years later, his books are published; he has several of them in the nearby bookstore. His first books sit unsold in the corner shelf because he wrote them in French, which the critics rejected as a Russian man attempting to use their language. However, once he wrote in Russian and had them translated into French, the critics hailed his novels. Thus, the narrator has written himself out of poverty and is prepared to find Charlotte to bring her back to France. In order to accomplish this he hires Alex Bond, a Russian businessman, to travel to Saranza and see if Charlotte is even alive. Mr. Bond returns and tells him that his grandmother is alive and well. The only thing preventing him from traveling from Russia is his lack of a French passport.
As soon as he submits his name for approval of a passport, he decides that in order to welcome Charlotte to France he must decorate his apartment with antiques that might make her feel more at home. He moves into a larger apartment imagining her surprise at the lovely view, and buys her books that may remind her of the Paris of the past. Soon he has overspent his income, yet he still decorates Charlotte’s future room in anticipation of her arrival.
It is in the final days before he plans to leave for Saranza when the narrator receives a letter from the Prefecture de Police. The letter states that his request is unacceptable. He writes for an appeal, but the months slip by until it is August. By this time it has been a year since Alex Bond's trip to Saranza. A man named Val Grig travels to Paris to deliver a package to the narrator. He informs him that Charlotte Lemonnier has died, on September 9 of the previous year. His grandmother died only a few short weeks after Alex Bond had traveled to Saranza, making everything that the narrator did, everything he bought was in vain.
Without knowing what else to do, the narrator opens the envelope that Charlotte intended for him. He sadly realizes that it was not the rejection of the passport that annulled his reunion with Charlotte, it was time. He begins reading the envelope, which is a manuscript written in Charlotte’s hand. It is a story he finds to be all too common: that of a woman of the Stalinist period who was accused of propaganda and placed in a woman’s camp. The woman is with child and her life is therefore saved. However, when the child is very young she is crushed by a tractor and dies in a hospital where Charlotte received permission to see her. Then, confused, the narrator reads the last sentence. Charlotte writes to him that this woman was his mother, Maria Stepanovna Dolina. This woman, the narrator’s biological mother, wanted to keep this secret from him for as long as possible.
In two days time the narrator leaves his apartment, his payment being all of the items he had bought for Charlotte's room, still uninhabited. As he walks through the dusty Paris streets he thinks of another memory to add to his Notes. It is that of him and Charlotte wandering through a forest decorated with rusting weaponry. In the middle of a clearing grew a grapevine, which caused Charlotte unimaginable joy; it was a reminder of her France.
The novel ends with the narrator looking at the picture of his real mother that Charlotte gave him. He tells himself that he must get used to the idea of her as his mother. His thoughts drift to Charlotte’s presence filling the streets of Paris as he searches for the words to tell her story.