De Potter’s Grand Tour

9780374162337_p0_v1_s260x420If I had met Joanna Scott’s Armand de Potter and his wife Aimee, tour directors extraordinaire, I would have signed up to follow them around the world, and probably never questioned their authenticity.  In De Potter’s Grand Tour, Scott treats the reader to vicarious trips to Europe, Egypt, and exotic experiences popular in the world tours of the late 1800s.  The tour leader is charming, well-read, educated and a distinguished man of letters who is also an imposter.

Scott loosely bases the story on her grandparents’ letters and experiences, inserting actual black and white photographs to make the characters seem real.  Her writing style reads like a documentary, coldly observing the action, but the book is fiction.

Armand de Potter is the focus of the gambit, an immigrant who yearns to be respected as a collector of artefacts, with a talent for organizing and leading tours.  Like a modern day Tauck, de Potter manages his group’s needs with ease, and always inserts significant insider glimpses of venues and speakers otherwise not available to the touring public – endearing himself to his travelers, while they praise him to their friends and fuel his business.

Unknown to his wife and his business associates, de Potter’s background is more peasant than aristocrat, and his yearning to be a collector has jeopardized his finances.  Although he has managed to collect a sizable amount of Egyptian antiquities, their provenances are questionable and he has donated them all to the University of Pennsylvania, in the vain hope for an honorary degree and recognition.  With the creditors at his heels, De Potter decides that his life insurance policy is his only saving worth.

The story itself is fueled by the reason for dePotter’s disappearance.  Scott cleverly dangles the possibilities of whether or not he died at sea, purposely or accidentally, or deceived the crew and walked away into an anonymous life, leaving his wife to reconcile the debts and believe him dead. His fate is not revealed until the ending, and by then the reader has probably decided whether or not de Potter is a scoundrel or merely a harmless pretender.

With Scott’s ploy to convince the reader of the truth of the story, the reader never really understands the main character; he seems contrived.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about those glamorous grand tours, when travel by ship rather than plane brought the curious to far-off sites, and walking miles was the rule for appreciating hidden treasures –  the good old times when noone could recline a plane seat into my lap.