The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan

When Kirsty at The Literary Sisters kindly offered to pass on to me a Francoise Sagan book she’d finished with, I was naturally delighted! She’d mentioned “The Heart-Keeper” on one of the videos (have a look at her YouTube channel here) and I must admit I was intrigued. This is a later Sagan and one I’d not heard of, so when it arrived I was keen to read it. What I didn’t anticipate was quite how odd I would find it…

THK is set outside of what I would consider normal Sagan territory in that it takes place in Hollywood of the 1960s. The narrator is Dorothy Seymour, a scriptwriter in her mid 40s. Driving home one night with current boyfriend Paul, they nearly run over a young man who runs in front of their car. They take the young man, Lewis, back to Dorothy’s house and somehow, after several weeks, he is still there. That one act of unprovoked kindness brings him into Dorothy’s life, not to be removed.

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There are of course the usual rumours about a young man living with an older woman. But the relationship is entirely platonic and Lewis seems devoted in a son like way. Nevertheless Dorothy is a little unnerved and tries to find him a career in the movies. He seems to have a natural acting talent, and Dorothy thinks she may have found a way to get him out of her life so she can marry Paul and carry on with a normal existence. However, things start going a little awry when her previous husband apparently commits suicide; then other deaths follow; and Dorothy begins to wonder quite what is going on around her…

This book was not at all what I expected, and I actually find it really hard to write about because I can’t quite work out what it’s intended to be! My first thought was that it was trying to be a kind of black comedy, rather like Waugh’s “The Loved One” – but there doesn’t seem to be any humour! Then I wondered if it was some kind of comment on Hollywood, but in all honesty the Hollywood side of things doesn’t seem to be that prominent, with just a sketchy, clichéd portrayal of the place as superficial and bitchy; so apart from the fact that Lewis is very good at hiding behind a mask, the show business side is really irrelevant. Is it about love, Sagan’s usual subject? Well, yes, I think it probably is. Lewis loves Dorothy obsessively, as she seems to be the first person to show him an unselfish act of kindness, and from this springs his devotion. However, accepting that this is what Sagan is trying to say, I think the book unfortunately doesn’t cohere.

If Sagan is trying to make a serious point, there are too many inconsistencies – it isn’t credible that Lewis would get away with behaving as he does; Dorothy’s behaviour is also not tenable as I find it impossible to believe she would simply accept the killings; and Paul’s acceptance of the third person in his relationship with Dorothy, in the form of Lewis, simply doesn’t work. He’s jealous and critical of Lewis at the start and although Lewis saves him from drowning at one point, that doesn’t seem enough to warrant his total acceptance of Lewis in their lives.

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Lewis is described as almost too handsome, and everyone he meets wants something physical from him – something it’s hinted he’s incapable of giving. This seems to be the crux of the matter and why he responds so strongly to Dorothy’s disinterest – she never sees him as a potential sexual partner and this inspires his devotion. The book is short, but it’s quite possible in a work of this length to develop characters that are strong and real; however Sagan unfortunately resorts to stereotypes (drunken Hollywood director, voracious female star with a ridiculous name) and the book suffers because of this.

Basically, I found myself totally flummoxed by this book! At just over 100 pages, it seems to struggle to get its point across and really I still don’t know what it’s trying to be after thinking about it for several days. I haven’t found a lot about it online and it may be that it either sunk like a trace after its publication or other readers are as confused as I was! Anyway, thank you Kirsty for a very intriguing read – and I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it have thought!

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