How My Louise Penny Tour Helped Soothe My Anxious Spirit

I knew Three Pines was fictional: Why did I go looking for it?

Posted Jun 26, 2019

 Patricia Prijatel
The Brome Lake Bookstore in the Eastern Townships of Quebec welcomes you to the fictional Three Pines. In the background is what could be the Riviere Bella Bella—the Beautiful Pretty River.
Source: Patricia Prijatel

It’s usually winter in Three Pines, a village hidden in a forested Canadian valley somewhere between Quebec City and Montreal. The enchanting hamlet doesn't actually exist, although it should, and many of us prefer to think it does. Author Louise Penny created this tiny burg out of her imagination and bits and pieces of the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada, just north of the Vermont border.

Having read all of Penny’s books about this quirky but welcoming place, I understand why Penny seldom sets her stories in spring or summer.  The frigid Canadian weather allows the residents to gather around fires in the bistro or in the home of one friend or another, to share bowls of steaming soup and fresh bread, to demonstrate physical and emotional warmth and, of course, to help the wise and indestructible Chief Inspector Armand Gamache work out his latest mystery.

The warmth is more potent when pitted against intense cold. The light is stronger when compared with the dark. And it’s easy to overlook that Penny writes a good deal about evil and violence because those become just dark shadows in an otherwise hospitable world. The mystery part of her novels is incidental. We're there for the people.

The hub of Three Pines  is the village green around which the bistro, bookstore, bakery and B&B are all grouped and where the three trees grow, within walking distance of the homes of the oddball inhabitants: Ruth, the cranky put renowned poet who nurtures a foul-mouthed duck; Myrna, a retired psychologist who owns the cozy bookstore; Clara, the artist whose work is far more complicated than it appears; Gabri and Olivier who run the bistro and B&B, gay men who have found a home in this tolerant town; and Armand and his wife Reine-Marie, who adore one another 35-plus years into marriage.

The group meets often for meals and drinks and problem-solving, often related to crimes, often related to their personal lives, always related to food. Book by book, these characters become closer to one another, grow more fully themselves, and build a community too delightful to be real, although readers can dream.

Travel bureaus in the Eastern Townships know a winner when they see it, and they provide maps, web sites, and formal tours of favorite places in the Gamache novels. The bistro where the gang meets? It could be one of several in Knowlton. The church where the body of the mysterious debt collector was found? It’s just outside Sutton. The monastery where Gamache investigated the death of the music director? It’s the gorgeous Abbaye De St-Benoit-Du-Lac, or St. Benedicts on Lake Memphremagog.  Try to say that with a mouth full of brioche.

In late May, my husband and I drove through this land of undulating hills, forests, gentle mountains, and thriving villages to see if we could catch some of the magic of Three Pines.

When we checked into our B&B in Knowlton, one of the owners asked, “So are you here because of Louise Penny?”

Well, yes, we answered, suddenly feeling less special than we had a minute before. “Does that happen a lot?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, most of our visitors come because of her,” she said.

Oh, well. We’re a demographic now. So be it. I’ve been worse.

The owners, who I now think of as Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache because of their demeanor and their huge fireplace and inviting table, gave us a Louise Penny map of the region before we even finished checking in.  Soon we were off searching for our imagination.

It was a warm spring day, so the ambience was a bit off—no fires in the hearths, no neighbors huddled together on comfy chairs in their galoshes, scarves and knit toques. There were plenty of ducks, as Knowlton is on Lake Brome, with a healthy canard population. Those ducks, though, are more for eating than for companionship and we didn't hear a single one utter a profanity.

And, yes, we do know ducks can’t cuss. They probably can’t even talk.

After touring several villages, we found lots of pines, but no Three Pines. But then, Penny makes it clear the village is not on maps, has no WIFI and is not discoverable on GPS.Perhaps if we just looked harder.

We ate well at local bistros and boulangeries and bought cheese and chocolate at the abbey. My husband ate duck. I cringed, waiting for it to curse him or for Ruth to run up and hit him with her cane. We bought books at the bookstore where Penny does signings. We drove by a house we decided was hers, based on no real information at all; it was just the type of home that matched the personality of the woman who created a fiction I want to believe.

For those of us who often live in our heads, reality can be a hard sell compared to fiction.

Because of the warmth and closeness of its residents, Three Pines feels solid and true, an enviable combination in a brittle world. My fears about climate change, increasing hate and political volatility have me looking for someplace to be a hermit.  

If I lived in Three Pines, I could be shielded from the outside nastiness by people who get what being human is all about. Those people are there for one another. They have the savvy but immensely kind Gamache outsmarting drug cartels, replacing dirty cops, mentoring a younger generation of misfits, and finding his own safety in the little town that charmed him so much he moved there from Montreal.

Everything in Three Pines is walkable and everybody is a known quantity. The village has urban amenities without the overflow of urbanites. The characters practice the selective connectivity common in small towns—the coming together of the like-minded without the riffraff—but often have to confront some sordid truths because of their closeness to Gamache. Crime finds Three Pines, even if we couldn't. 

Perhaps the most important part of Penny’s imaginary world is its embrace of the silly, even absurd, like Rosa the duck whose only word rhymes with duck; Clara whose hair is a food magnet, making her look like the “Carmen Miranda of baked goods;” Gabri, the Drama Queen, whose partner thinks his feelings are so raw he must have been “born inside out,” and the fact that doors are never locked in town except during harvest time "to prevent neighbors from dropping off baskets of zucchini.” I laughed out loud when Jean Guy Beauvoir looked at himself in his car’s mirror and realized his image was closer than it appeared.

I am especially taken with Clara because she feels a bit like Penny’s alter ego, an artist longing to find recognition and appreciation, who ultimately soars because of her talents, but who is often socially maladroit and downright hilarious. At one point, she basks in bubble bath given to her by her judgmental, upper-crust mother-in-law, who normally gives her cooking products even though Clara hates to cook. Ultimately, Clara learns the woman actually had given her a soup mix and she looks back at her bathwater to see a pea floating next to a rehydrated carrot.

We have lost our sense of silliness and Penny has found it.

Three Pines is a place where women often find their talent late in life, like Penny, who published her first book when she was 45. Cranky old Ruth is a renowned poet who shares her wisdom on the page and occasionally in person, whose heart seems made of stone because she fears kindness kills, but who quietly comes to the aid of those needing it most. Who knows how old she is—Penny never makes that entirely clear, although she is obviously a year older than dirt—when she finally wins the Governor-General award. Clara becomes a respected and popular artist once she steps out of her husband’s shadow, although her hair remains a delicious mess.  Myrna gives up the stress of her job as a psychologist because her clients showed no interest in changing, and she accidentally finds this hidden town that feels like home, like where she should have been all along. 

In fact, Penny has said the books have been therapeutic for her, coming after an early career as a successful broadcast journalist on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. At one time, she treated her problems with alcohol. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous, gave up drinking, and took up writing. "The writing became a harbor, it became a solace," she told CBS News. "It became a world I could control."  

We bought Penny’s first book, Still Life, at Brome Lake Books in Knowles, which is a stand-in for Myrna's shop, and came home to reread it.  After having visited the land of Penny’s inspiration, my imagination now intersects with hers in a deeper way. Before my visit, I only had her words as tools to see the world she created. Now I can envision the Riviere Bella Bella—the Beautiful Pretty River—as the stream that flows behind the bookstore. I see the paned windows of Le Relais when I imagine Olivier’s Bistro. And I see myself, tucked into a tiny village, deep in the forest, off a rutted and unwelcoming road, sitting at a big wooden table, eating soup from a steaming bowl and watching all my imaginary friends.  

If I look hard enough, maybe I will find Olivier and Gabri’s B&B, where I will sleep on crisp linens and listen to the songs of frogs from the backyard pond. I will eat eggs Benedict for every breakfast. Perhaps I will soak in an old claw-footed tub.

Maybe peas and carrots will bubble up in the suds.