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'Forgotten on Sunday' evokes the heartwarming whimsy of the movie 'Amélie'

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Valérie Perrin's novels have been enormously popular in her native France, and it's no wonder. Forgotten on Sunday, her third to be translated into English, evokes something of the heartwarming whimsy of the 2001 movie, Amélie, which gets a shout-out in the book.

A recurrent theme in Perrin's novels is the life-changing magic of friendships across generations. Her latest is narrated by a charming misfit, a 21-year-old nurse's assistant at a retirement home in her tiny village. Justine Neige is so interested in her patients' lives that she often stays after her shift to hold their hands and talk to them. She announces on the second page: "I love two things in life: music and the elderly."

Like Violette Toussaint, the caretaker of a cemetery in Perrin's Fresh Water for Flowers, Justine has an unusual gift for empathy that enables her to elicit confidences from the people she encounters in her work. Despite the sadness of some of the stories, including their own, both of Perrin's idiosyncratic heroines remain obstinate optimists and romantics.

Justine has a favorite patient, 96-year-old Hélène Hel, a retired seamstress and bistro owner whose life story she records in a blue notebook. It's a love story disrupted by the German occupation of France, deportation to Buchenwald, and years lost to amnesia -- all frequent subjects in French literature. Unusually, dyslexia and Braille play into it. So do blue eyes. A seagull is asked to carry more symbolic weight than in Chekhov. (Don't ask.)

As Justine pieces together Hélène's tragic history, relayed "in jigsaw-puzzle form," she also strives to locate the missing pieces regarding the tragedy that changed her life: the death of her parents in a car accident on the way to a baptism when she was four. Also killed in the 1996 crash were her uncle and aunt -- her father's identical twin brother and his beautiful Swedish wife -- who left behind 2-year-old Jules. The two orphaned cousins were raised by their grim grandparents, who refuse to discuss the crash. "It can't be said that they're nasty to us, merely absent," Justine comments. We eventually learn why.

Justine, seemingly without ambition or wanderlust, went straight from high school to her ill-paid job at The Hydrangeas. Jules, on the other hand, plans to hightail it to Paris to study architecture the minute he finishes his baccalaureate. "For Jules, succeeding in life means leaving Milly," Justine observes. (It also meant cutting off his Swedish maternal grandparents when he was ten, after "they made insinuations" about his parentage.) He cannot understand Justine's devotion to her job or to their dying little village. "Jules tells me I'm too naively sentimental, that I think like a novel," she writes. Of course he's right, but of course that's Justine's charm.

Forgotten on Sunday is comfortably translated by Hildegarde Serle, though I wish she had left some of the original French for color, such as crèpes instead of pancakes and toilette instead of the ungainly ablutions. The title refers to the nursing home inhabitants who are unvisited -- or forgotten -- even on Sundays. In French, it's Les Oubliés du Dimanche, with the definite article: the forgotten. Most of these neglected elders, Justine notes pointedly, "have only sons." (A better word order: "only have sons" -- meaning no daughters, who, she observes, are far more attentive to their parents.)

This intricately plotted novel features more twisted strands than a French braid, with several flyaway mysteries that Perrin ultimately tames. Primary among them: Who has been calling the families of forgotten patients on Saturday nights and telling them their loved ones have died, forcing them to show up to a big surprise (and the delight of their elders) on Sunday morning? Despite being "like an Agatha Christie with no dead body," the case triggers a police investigation by the same lazy, unpleasant detective who, it turns out, investigated Justine's parents' accident.

Another question that keeps readers turning pages: Who's the thoughtful, unbelievably forbearing guy Justine sometimes spends the night with after dancing at the Paradise Club -- a guy whose calls she never bothers to return and whose name she never bothers to learn?

Forgotten on Sunday is a pain au chocolat of a book -- flaky but buttery, with a sweet center. This sentimental soul-soother is further sweetened by the knowledge that several of the characters are named, at least in part, after Perrin's grandparents, including Helene Hel's lost-and-found great love, Lucien Perrin.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.