Chloe’s husband has just abandoned her and their two daughters for another woman. Lost and reeling, Chloe ends up staying at a remote farmhouse with her father-in-law. He tells her a story from his own life, which brings into question duty, love, relationships, and happiness.
I read this book in its original French, and I want to talk a little bit about that experience before moving on to my thoughts on the book as a whole. It was one of my goals this year to read at least two books in the original French, one modern, and one classic. It’s been about eight months since I finished reading the Harry Potter series in French, and I didn’t want to let my semi-passing competence in the language drop. I also picked up the English version of the book to refer back to, in case I had difficulty with the French.
I’m pleased to say that I understood about 90% of the book in the original. Periodically there would be vocabulary that I didn’t recognize, or phrases/idioms, or some of the grammar structure would trip me up, but for the most part, I could read through the book fluidly. I read each chapter/section in English after the French to verify that I was catching everything, and I was! The book was remarkably easy to read, and easier as I got back into the rhythm of the language. I started by translating to English in my head, but ended by just reading the French – it was easier to understand that way. I am very happy about this! I know there’s little chance I’ll ever be completely fluent, what with living no where near anyone else who speaks French, but I’m glad I have a few ways to keep on going with this.
As for the book, it was beautiful. This turned out to be a really good choice. I tried to get my hands on tons of modern books in French, and this was one of the only ones available from the library. So it’s a really good thing that it turned out to be so great. The synopsis I gave above can’t really do it justice. This is a story within a story, the story of an affair, but most important, it explores the complex question of what makes an action “right” or “wrong.”
The story is one you hear all the time – a man, caught between a wife and a lover. A situation that may seem very clear-cut, but isn’t. A person can rationalize and moralize all they want, but when you break down those arguments, you find that nothing is so black and white. Is there ever a time when leaving is justified? Can it be better for the wife if her husband cuts ties? Would she prefer to stay with a man who does not love her, or suffer the pain of his leaving? Can great pain and breakage lead to happier lives for all parties, in the long run? Does happiness trump duty, and if not, what comes of duty to oneself? There is no clear-cut answer given in this book. It’s just an exploration, showing that there are multiple answers, and that no one way is right. There were a few passages of the book that I just loved so much, and I wish I could quote them in French because they’re better in the original, but I know most of my readers don’t read French so here they are in English:
…I would rather see you suffer a lot today rather than suffer a little bit for the rest of your life. I see people suffering a little, only a little, not much at all, just enough to ruin their lives completely… People who are still together because they’re crushed under the weight of that miserable little thing – their ordinary little life. All those compromises, all of those contradictions… Regrets, remorse, cracks and compromises that don’t heal over, that never heal. Never!
And then this one:
Happiness had been mine, and I had let it slip away in order to not complicate my life.
This book hit me on such a personal level, not because of my own marriage, but because of marriages of people I’ve been close to over the years, including my own parents’ marriage (which ended when I was a teenager). I won’t divulge the details of any of those, of course, and so therefore can’t really pinpoint in this review exactly why the book touched me so much, but I hope it will be enough to say that I have seen situations like this enough times to understand that there is always more than one side to every story, and that even the person who looks most like the bad guy isn’t necessarily bad. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be situations like this. We wouldn’t fall in love with someone other. We wouldn’t fall out of love, or marry for duty, or live in silent pain. But ours is not an ideal world, and I love that this book sits right in the messy center of it.