Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

“That summer, I was seventeen and perfectly happy. …My father was forty, and had been a widower for fifteen years. He was young for his age, full of vitality and liveliness. When I left my convent school two years before and came to Paris to live with him, I soon realized that he was living with a woman. But I was slower in accepting the fact that his fancy changed every six months! But gradually his charm, my new easy life, and my own disposition, led me to fall in readily with his ways. He was a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and very attractive to women. It was easy for me to love him, for he was kind, generous, gay, and fond of me. I cannot imagine a better or more amusing companion.”

This lovely little novel, deceptively slim, made me want to read it while lying on a beach. It’s full of rich French people being delightfully and almost stereotypically French at their villa in the Mediterranean, and all the romantic drama and emotional backstabbing that occurs there. The narrator, Cecile, is enjoying her hedonistic lifestyle when her playboy father announces, unexpectedly, that he is getting married. The woman in question is Anne, a family friend who is the opposite of the previous mistresses Cecile’s father has had: she’s elegant, poised, practical, intelligent, dignified, and forty-two. Cecile recognizes the threat that Anne poses to her carefree life, and decides to destroy the relationship:

“She would gradually turn us into the husband and step-daughter of Anne Larsen, that is to say, she would turn us into two civilized, well-behaved and contented persons. For she would certainly be good to us. How easily – unstable and irresponsible as we were – we would yield to her influence, and be fitted into the attractive framework of her orderly plan of living. She was much too efficient. Already my father was separated from me. I was hurt by his embarrassed face, turning away from me at the table. Tears came to my eyes at the thought of the jokes we used to have together, our gay laughter as we drove home at dawn through the deserted streets of Paris. All that was over. In my turn I would be influenced, readjusted, remodeled by Anne. I would not even mind it, she would handle me with such intelligence, humor, and sweetness. I wouldn’t be able to resist her. In six months I should no longer even want to.”

In another writer’s hands, this story could have gone horribly wrong – Cecile has every opportunity to turn into a spoiled rich brat who can’t stand the idea of being forced to behave like an adult with responsibilities, and the way she tries to destroy her father’s happiness could be seen as the actions of a borderline-psychotic. The genius of Sagan’s book is that she doesn’t try to justify Cecile’s actions. We see the horrible truth of what Cecile is doing, and so does Cecile. Every few chapters (sometimes every few pages) Cecile will have a moment of clarity, and realize that Anne is a good person and that her father is happy, and she regrets her meddling. But then she goes right back to her destructive plan, because she can’t help herself. By letting us see Cecile wrestling with her own conscience, and ultimately being unable to resist her destructive urge, Sagan creates one of the best portrayals of a teenage girl I’ve ever read.

“Although I did not share my father’s intense aversion to ugliness – which often led us to associate with stupid people – I did feel vaguely uncomfortable in the presence of anyone completely devoid of physical charm. Their resignation to the fact that they were unattractive seemed to me somehow indecent. For what are we looking for if not to please? I do not know if the desire to attract others comes from a superabundance of vitality, possessiveness, or the hidden, unspoken need to be reassured.”

Verdict: four out of five stars

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