Book Review: Bonjour Tristesse de Françoise Sagan
Author: Françoise Sagan
Genre: French classics
Originally published: 1954
English translation: Bonjour Tristesse
First translated: 1955
This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 20th century novel.
Cecile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, the sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy. United by the theme of love, the writings in the "Great Loves" series span over two thousand years and vastly different worlds. Readers will be introduced to love's endlessly fascinating possibilities and extremities: romantic love, platonic love, erotic love, gay love, virginal love, adulterous love, parental love, filial love, nostalgic love, unrequited love, illicit love, not to mention lost love, twisted and obsessional love...
While I haven't totally completed this reading challenge I think Françoise Sagan might just be the greatest discovery that's come out of it! I instantly fell in love with her voice and style which have something airy, casual and nonchalant but are always precise and spot on. There's something effortless that transpires from Bonjour Tristesse, a novel she wrote at the age of 18 and which mainly focuses on the discovery of female sexuality in the fifties.
I read the whole think in one seating on the plane. Granted it's a short novel but I was quite literally glued to the page from start to finish.
Bonjour Tristesse is the story of seventeen year old Cécile who lives with her father, a widower for the past fifteen year and who indulges in women and alcohol. Together, they have fun, attend a number of parties and drink too much. It's now Summer; Cécile has failed her latest exams but isn't really bothered by it (neither seems to be her father). They've rented a villa in the South of France, right on the ocean, lazying in the sun and their nights clubbing. Cécile's father has brought along his mistress of the moment, Elsa. Days go by, and the trio seem happy and content. Cécile meets Cyril, a young man with whom she goes sailing. Their lazy bubble bursts upon the arrival of an old family friend, Anne Carsen.
Anne was a friend of Cécile's mother and when Cécile first came out of boarding school two years before, she spent the first few weeks with Anne who clothed her and made sure the girl knew how to behave in society. Anne is everything Cécile's father is not: balanced, classy, constant and also perhaps condescending at times. While Cécile clearly admires her, she's also a bit scared of her and knows that Anne's arrival marks the end of the Summer, or at least of her holidays.
To sum up the following events without giving too much away: Cécile's father grows clearly interested in Anne and his mistress Elsa is no competition for the mature and elegant woman. Elsa moves out, Cécile's father announces his engagement to Anne and the latter starts to meddle in Cécile's life, locking her in her room when she misbehaves and forcing her to study. Cécile then starts elaborating a scheme to rid herself and her father of Anne, manipulating her father, Elsa and Cyril, all to a tragic end. Throughout the novel, Cécile is clearly torn between her feelings for Anne and her longing for the easiness of her old life with her father and his many mistresses.
Several times, she tries to back out but is either too lazy to do so and in too deep to do anything about it.
I fear I may have already given too much away so will stop now. What I can say is that while there is a plot, it's Cécile's voice (the novel's told in the first person) that drove the entire novel. It made it intense intimate and striking. I can see how the novel's theme could have caused quite a scandal in the fifties when it was first published but there's nothing provoking about it as it merely voices what is there and is honest without trying too hard to be ground-breaking and thought-provoking. And it's perhaps for these very reasons that it is.
It's interesting to watch Cécile's growing feelings for Cyril, her inner conflicts and external conflicts with Anne who's really just trying to give her a bit of stability and balance and be the adult Cécile's father can't live up to be. Anne is also a woman, who's clearly fallen for Cécile's father like so many other women before her but hoping that this time, he will be able to commit and stick to his promises.
I think it's one of those novels that can easily be read over and over again at different stages in life and the reader will be sure to discover something new each time. I wonder how I would've perceived it ten years ago and if I would've enjoyed studying it in high school. It's one I highly recommend and I'll be sure to read more of this author in the coming years.
Other reviews for this challenge:
Mémoires de la vie d'Henriette-Sylvie de Molière de Madame de Villedieu
Adèle de Senange by Madame de Souza
La Mare au Diable by George Sand
Trois Femmes Puissantes by Marie NDiaye