Review: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan


Set against the translucent beauty of France in summer, Bonjour Tristesse is a bittersweet tale narrated by Cécile, a seventeen-year-old girl on the brink of womanhood, whose meddling in her father’s love life leads to tragic consequences.

Freed from boarding school, Cécile lives in unchecked enjoyment with her youngish, widowed father — an affectionate rogue, dissolute and promiscuous. Having accepted the constantly changing women in his life, Cécile pursues a sexual conquest of her own with a “tall and almost beautiful” law student. Then, a new woman appears in her father’s life. Feeling threatened but empowered, Cécile sets in motion a devastating plan that claims a surprising victim.

Deceptively simple in structure, Bonjour Tristesse is a complex and beautifully composed portrait of casual amorality and a young woman’s desperate attempt to understand and control the world around her.


I was lying in the sand, taking a handful of it in my hand, letting it flow from my fingers in a soft, yellowy stream. I was thinking that it was flowing away like time, which was a simple idea and that it was pleasant to have simple ideas. It was summer.

A rich, liberated young French girl lives in a villa on the Riviera for the summer with her lothario father and his woman of the moment. Her days are spent sunbathing, swimming, walking in the countryside, visiting fashionable somebodies in trendy bars, eating, drinking and drinking, wanting love, not understanding love, but most of all and always, not thinking. Her days are full of not thinking. That is to say Cécile’s days are not full at all. So when the arrival of Anne, a cold but brilliant Parisian, usurps her father’s attentions, pulling him away from pert 20-somethings and into the halls of potential matrimony, Cécile begins to plot.

The halcyon summer days on the Mediterranean, full of nothing and everything at the same time, represent Cécile’s fading childhood. At 17 she will soon become a person, and eventually a person will want to think, and eventually these thoughts, if unwieldy and untested, will destroy. And afterwards, there will no longer be a villa on the Mediterranean, or there might be, but it will be filled with tristesse, that is, sadness.

Cécile boils up a plan worthy of a third Parent Trap movie to separate her father from Anne. But at the very beginning of her machinations, she already regrets them. The relationship dynamics here are rich and confusing. There’s definitely an Oedipus complex happening here: Cécile’s father dates women not much older than her, and Cécile idolizes him, takes his advice on love as gospel, aspires to love like him…maybe because she’s in love with him? Her competitor to this crown is, of course, Anne, whom she simultaneously admires beyond belief, indeed hopes to imitate and learn from, and wants to annihilate.

There are plenty of subtly romantic moments between all the characters, the most stirring of which a mere caress of Cécile’s face by Anne on the patio. The story devolves like a match of tug-of-war that will inevitably be lost. Cécile is on the cusp of liberty and meaningfulness and thought, on the verge of adulthood. She pushes herself forward and pulls herself backward, but she will definitely fall into the future, she will definitely hurt herself there, and she definitely cannot go back.

In Bonjour Tristesse she says hello to the loss of innocence but in this short, sharp little novella, also leaves a beautiful remembrance of losing it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda

Prize-winning author Anna Gavalda has galvanized the literary world with an exquisite genius for storytelling. Here, in her epic new novel of intimate lives-and filled with the “humanity and wit” (Marie Claire) that has made it a bestselling sensation in France-Gavalda explores the twists of fate that connect four people in Paris. Comprised of a starving artist, her shy, aristocratic neighbor, his obnoxious but talented roommate, and a neglected grandmother, this curious, damaged quartet may be hopeless apart, but together, they may just be able to face the world.
Anna Gavalda has a wonderfully infuriating way of writing like so…
Making your eyes flitter down the page.
Making your heart bat harder with each revelation.
Until she concludes a thought.
Like this.
With oh-so-much meaning.

Her writing is more alive than most, an especially impressive feat since I’ve read her work in French, not English, and I lose myself and die a thousand readerly deaths much more often when reading in French. But her words flow inevitably forward. If, as many authors have proclaimed, the goal of a writer is to get the reader to read the next sentence, and the next, and the next, Anna Gavalda is nothing short of a genius. Myself and others may be tempted to label this short, direct style as cutesy and simplistic, but it’s gosh darn compelling, if we’re being frank.

Less compelling, however, is the story behind the words. We have a nearly plotless novel here; all that happens is outlined in the blurb, apparent from the initial chapters, and fated by the gods of storytelling. Nothing much occurs and what does occur does not surprise. The four characters–a ragtag team beaten by the world who will find happiness in their shared ruins and slowly rebuild each other–are terrific sketches, but what they do is nowhere near as passionate as Gavalda’s prose. I’ve only previously read Gavalda’s slam-dunk short story collection, I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere, which hides this weakness of hers. Petite novelettes are perfect for her character-centric writing; this novel of nearly 600 pages was vast and vacant, the winds of disinterest blew through its empty and tired intrigues.

And yet.
That writing.
Heavy on punctuation, on labelling feelings, on fragmenting thoughts.
It pulled me through.

(I’ll stop now.)

But this pathetic attempt at imitation shows how much her words tumbled and scattered in my brain. Gavalda might not tell the stories that I want to read, but she tells them in the way I want to read them.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum


Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters into with an ease that surprises even her. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there’s no going back.


I propose a new rule for the 21st century, for this bright new era where mental illness is less stigmatized and your grandmother has a therapist, your 6th grade teacher has a therapist, even your 5 year-old neighbor has a therapist: can we please never ever discuss what your therapist tells you? Can the patient and wise words of your psychoanalyst live in the space between her mouth and your eager, desperate brain?

Listening to someone talk about therapy is the new listening to someone talk about her dreams. So much utter nonsense that I just can’t be bothered by. Pity that the character who has second-billing to Anna Benz, a Swiss and second millenium Madame Bovary, is Doktor Messerli, her therapist. Doktor Messerli has developed her entire methodology from Freud and Jung, which means to say everything she says is a load of abstract navelgazing with no real purchase on her patient’s inner life. Unfortunately this novel, which records the rapidly unraveling affairs of lonely, passive Anna, is positively graffited with short psychoanalyst asides:

The face one wears as an adult is a mask that’s cut to fit in her youth. Every mask becomes a death mask when you can no longer put it on or take it off at will. When you mistake the persona you project for your living soul. When you can no more distinguish between the two.

I hate thinking so much about thinking. It makes my pulse gallop. Psychoanalysis of this sort (and it truly does occur and recur every few pages throughout the book) is a web from which you cannot escape. This constant analysis of Anna’s character by Doktor Messerli (who is, of course, nothing more than an authorial stand-in, a god in the sky to push the story, and more particularly, the story’s “themes” along) is professional and sanitized and incomprehensible, which renders any readerly attempt of analyzing Anna’s character cloudy. I spent most of this book stuck in a web of outdated Jungian aphorisms, leading me to groan, “Save me from all this thought so that I can actuallythink!”My mother, daughter of a German father and an American mother, often yelled when my father and us children demanded some domestic task of her, “I’m not your Hausfrau!” Anna lacks my mother’s vivacious ability to act, to exclaim, to deny, leading her to become a Hausfrau. Like Anna Kareninabefore her, Anna’s femininity translates to passivity, and her passivity translates to doom. Anna can’t speak Swiss German, despite living in Zürich for 9 years. Culturally removed, she can’t make friends. Without a bank account of her own, she can’t leave her husband. Quite basically, she lacks a vocabulary—linguistic and psychological—to get what she wants, even todecide what she wants. Anna simply can’t. And she knows it:

I am beholden to my own peculiar irony: to survive I self-destruct.

Anna’s passionate about her misery. But at a certain point even her misery becomes too much. She can no longer passively accept life; she must live. Observing these consequences is where the novel excels.

Choppy, meandering, spliced with unnecessary asides on Swiss German grammar and silly scientificating about the properties of fire, and, of course, plenty of falsely opaque psychoanalyses,Hausfrau is flawed and frustrating. But it’s believable, crushingly so, and incredible to realize that an American woman living in Switzerland in the 2000s may not be so different from Anna Karenina and the 19th century Russian ballrooms she called home and prison.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: One Day by David Nicholls


15th July 1988

Emma and Dexter meet on the night of their graduation. Tomorrow they must go their separate ways.

So where will they be on this one day next year?
And the year after that?

And every year that follows?


One Day was a novel endowed with a very important task: to occupy me during six hours of train travel. And what do you know, it did its job, not overwhelmingly well but just well enough that it will always be a fond memory, a solid 3-star read.

Smartly composed and occasionally insightful, One Day still undeniably belongs to that genre some are determined to label “chick-lit.” But it’s literary, and although it gives us what we want, we have to work for it. The going is tough before the much-wanted, inevitable relationship gets going. Nicholls is realistic if not a bit ruthless about love. He reminded me that two people can love each other to infinity and beyond and still make each other bleed with nasty words. And that’s why if this is “chick-lit” it’s definitely of a superior rank. Love, while still lovely, is not entirely rosy under Nicholls’ pen; for him love is beautiful 90% of the time, but the other 10% is lived in darkness and suffered in sharpness.

The conceit of the story is that its told on the same day—July 15—over twenty years. Emma and Dexter meet in the 80s and the story ends in the new millennium, when they’re a bit fatter and greyer, but wiser too. Vast swaths of time are lost because as readers we are only privy to the happenings of one day per year. The novel is accordingly obsessed with time, ticking and tocking me until I was struck by the mundane but true realization of how long a year is, how much change 364 days can offer.

Some stories give us exactly what we want but they don’t suffer for this predictability. If these stories surprised us, they would have, in some way, violated a contract between the reader and writer: I read certain genres to be lightly entertained when embarking upon a six-hour train journey. With One Day I was not shocked; I was not made to think; and for this I was contented.

3 out of 5 stars