Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Odd that I should be reading a summer book just as that season starts to come to a close and the nippier days of autumn draw nearer – though I confess that spring and autumn *are* my favourite seasons, so I’m not really complaining! However, as if there needed to be proof that I am a fickle, easily swayed reader, this is it. I was happily plodding through review books and OuLiPo playfulness and murder mysteries when HeavenAli happened to mention “Bonjour Tristesse”, which has been sitting on Mount TBR for some time, since I discovered this lovely little World Books edition in a charity shop. And a change of reading scene is never a bad thing…. 🙂

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Francoise Sagan was something of an early wild child, and Wikipedia says: Françoise Sagan (21 June 1935 – 24 September 2004) – real name Françoise Quoirez – was a French playwright, novelist, and screenwriter. Hailed as “a charming little monster” by François Mauriac on the front page of Le Figaro, Sagan was known for works with strong romantic themes involving wealthy and disillusioned bourgeois characters. Her best-known novel was her first – Bonjour Tristesse (1954) – which was written when she was a teenager. It also says she took her pseudonym from Proust – however, this is a much slimmer work, and quite stunning, bearing in mind it was written when she was so young.

BT is narrated by Cecile, a 17 year old spending the summer with her father Raymond on the Mediterranean. Raymond has been a widower for 15 years (which I guess means Cecile has been missing a mother for most of her existence), and lives a playboy life with a succession of young mistresses, the current being Elsa. Both father and daughter are what we would now call very laid-back, living a relaxed, disorderly and somewhat structureless life, doing as they please. For some reason, Raymond invites an old friend to join them; Anne Larsen, who had been a friend of Cecile’s mother, and had taken the girl in hand when she left school at 15, dressing her and giving her some French poise. However, Anne’s temperament is very, very different to that of Cecile and her father, and the teenager is concerned about the effect this will have on their summer.

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And she’s not wrong to be concerned. Anne is one of those efficient, capable women, the very epitome of French elegance, and although much older than Elsa she soon manages to displace her in Raymond’s affections. It’s not long before Cecile’s father is announcing that he and Anne are getting married, which shocks the teenager as it means an end to their relaxed way of life. Her fears soon become realised as Anne organises their lives, insists she works for exams and generally takes control. She also is much more restrictive with Cecile, stopping her from seeing Cyril, another visitor to the sea who is smitten with her.

So Cecile decides that enough is enough, and she’s going to stop the marriage going ahead – with the help, oddly enough, of Elsa. As her plan slowly comes to fruition, we watch her agonised teenage state of mind – but will things work out as she expects them, or has she drastically misread the situation and the people involved?

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BT is a strikingly assured work for an 18-year-old, and really gets inside the mind of a teenager. It was hard for me as a reader to know who to sympathise with more – Anne, the older woman, is nearer my age than Cecile, but I couldn’t help but see her through the younger woman’s eyes and resent her interference and attempts to change other people’s lives. Nevertheless, had I been Anne I daresay I would have wanted to try to bring some order into the chaotic lives I saw!

It’s heady stuff, and I found myself pondering the book’s reputation and also the blurb which states that it’s jealousy that motivates Cecile to take the action she does. I didn’t read it quite like that, I have to say. Although there’s a slight subtext that hints at incest (if there is such a thing as non-sexual incest – certainly the father and daughter are very close!), it seemed to me to be more the interference that Cecile was objecting to, the changing of their lifestyle rather than the fact that her father was marrying Anne. After all, she was used to him having a succession of mistresses, but the fear here seemed to be that Anne would try to change Raymond and the way they lived – and Cecile was not prepared to accept this.

The battle is played out between the older and younger woman, and very wonderfully drawn. The characters, none of whom are particularly likeable, are very strongly portrayed, as is the hot and dreamy atmosphere of the South of France before the commercialism really took over. I really enjoyed getting lost in this book – thanks for the nudge, Ali! 🙂

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