“Sin is the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modern world.” O. Wilde
So you can’t get any more French than this book. You really can’t. The cover picture of the edition I got even features a young girl in a blue-and-white striped shirt. All that’s missing is the baguette, seriously.
But this book isn’t just French in it’s content, it is also hilariously meta-French. But to explain, I have to take a step back and take you back to 2009, when yours truly was doing a Masters in France.
So the thing you have to know about the French is that they love philosophy. They do. Their entire school system is one big philosophical discourse (which, ironically enough, often comes to the exact same conclusions as the teacher does. But the conformity of French philosophy is another topic.)
In a way, you do not understand the French – and the French way of living- until you understand that they are a nation of philosophers. Weirdly enough, they only have a handful of world-class thinkers, but they practice philosophy like the English practice drinking – on a passionate, amateur level.
In fact, their final exams in university are essays. Essays on everything. History, economics – doesn’t matter. In your final exam, you will have to discuss a question about the subject. I even had to write an essay in my maths class. It was painful.
So when I read this book I could practically feel the generations of French students who had to pour over this book and discuss it in various baccalaureat sessions. This book is BORN for a literature essay, it really is.
It’s so French in a meta-way, I loved it. It really couldn’t have been written by anyone else but a teenage French girl in the 1950s.
So think about all the ingredients you think this novel will have, based on what I just told you about it.
A love triangle? Check. (Oh la la.)
Deep questions about growing up? Check. (Mais oui.)
Questions about what it means to be a woman? Check.
Male characters who are toyed with? Check.
All characters smoking extensively? Check.
Oh, and just to be sure, the plot happens in a villa at the French Riviera, during a hot summer. Because of course.
In a nutshell, the plot of the book is easily explained –
17-year-old Cécile spends her summer in a villa on the French Riviera with her father Raymond and his current mistress, the young, superficial, fashionable Elsa. Raymond is an attractive, worldly, amoral man who does not really care about his daughter’s academic career. He also leaves her a free hand at attracting men. Though she initially tries men of her father’s age, she eventually starts a romance with her neighbor, Cyril, who is a young man in his 20s.
This peaceful holiday foursome is shattered by the arrival of Anne. A cultured, principled, intelligent, hard-working woman of Raymond’s age who was a friend of his late wife, she regards herself as a sort of godmother to Cécile. A contest develops among the three women, which Anne wins by sleeping with Raymond and next morning announcing their engagement. Elsa moves out, then Anne starts on Cécile. She tells her to stop seeing Cyril and get back to her schoolbooks. Horrified at this threat to her lazy life as her father’s darling, Cécile devises a plan to prevent the marriage.
With the idea of making Raymond jealous, she arranges for Elsa and Cyril to pretend to be a couple. When Raymond can’t contain his jealousy, he goes off to find Elsa. But Cécile has misjudged Anne’s sensitivity, with tragic results. Seeing the two close together in the woods, she storms off in her car and plunges from a cliff in a suspected suicide. It later emerges that Raymond and Elsa were only kissing.
Cécile and her father return to the empty, desultory life they were living before Anne interrupted their summer.
Yeah. So that’s that.
But what will stay with me after having read the book – apart from the fact that Raymond somehow had the means to take two months off during summer!! – is how full of yikes factors it is. Let’s go over them one by one.
The inherent misogyny of Cecile
So here’s the thing. Women can be misogynists, too, and I will argue that Cecile clearly is. So first of all, she pits Elsa and Anne (sidenote – did Disney take the names for the Frozen characters from a 1950s book about a petulant teenager?) against each other.
Elsa is young, beautiful, and careless. Anne is old, responsible, and boring. It doesn’t even occur to Cecile that Anne could have feelings until she drives off and eventually kills herself.
Cecile hates Anne not just because she interrupts their vacation, she hates her because she thinks Anne wants to turn her into a copy of herself – intellectual, sophisticated, (and implied) boring.
Dudette. There’s more than two types of women out there, and perhaps having someone in your life who wants you to finish school isn’t the worst of all things.
The pedophilia of Cyril
Cyril is in his twenties and lusts after a 17 year old. Yikes. Can’t you get any girlfriends your age, Cyril? What’s up with that?
Also there’s a really cringey passage – Cecile asks Cyril what would happen if she got pregnant (it’s called condoms, Cecile, I’m sure your father has one or two in his luggage) and Cyril goes “That would be great, you can stay at home and I’ll provide for you.”
How very 1950s of you, Cyril.
But Cyril’s not the only creep in this book – what’s up with Raymond having girlfriends half his age? And it’s clear that Elsa is just the latest in a string of young girls he likes to keep around. Yikes. Which brings me to my next point –
Raymond – worst father ever?
I want to make an argument that Raymond should feature in the all-time ranking of worst fathers in Literature. There’s literally nothing to redeem him.
All he does is romance young girls, then GET ENGAGED after one night – seriously, have you never considered that your daughter might have a problem with that??
Then there’s the fact that he shows no interest at all in Cecile’s academic career, even going so far to say that ‘School isn’t important, you can find a rich guy to pay for your lifestyle.”
Ah. This makes me so furious. Also, perhaps say something if your daughter gets pitch black drunk at a dinner with friends. Raymond, in truly Raymondian fashion, laughs about it.
Like seriously, grow up and start acting like your age
Raymond, besides being a bad father, is also a not so great human being. He cheats on Elsa with Anne, and THEN cheats on Anne with Elsa, simply because the sight of Cyril kissing Elsa is ‘too much’ for him.
Dude, grow up.
I can only imagine what the exam questions about this book look like – is Cecile right for blaming herself for Anne’s death? Was Cecile’s plot justified? – but I think the real question is whether you could be any worse than Raymond.
All I can say to end this post is that this book couldn’t have been written anymore, and that’s probably a good thing.
And next week – staying slightly on topic, we’ll dip our feet into philosophic waters.