Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Reading Anna Gavalda

French writer Anna Gavalda is the author of three books: the novella Someone I Loved, a collection of stories titled I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere, and the recently translated Hunting and Gathering.

Gavalda's work is concise, elegant, and invariably pointed toward love--familial, marital, erotic. Someone I Loved, her first novel, is a fictionalized account of her husband's sudden departure for another woman. Narrator Chloé, stunned by Adrien's abandonment, numbly follows her father-in-law, Pierre, who insists on bundling her off to the countryside, her two small daughters in tow.

In the family’s remote country house the notoriously reticent, workaholic Pierre lays his life bare to his astonished daughter-in-law. As Chloé moves through her terrible grief, longing once again to be sitting on the Metro, filing her nails and wondering about dinner parties, Pierre divulges a series of shocking revelations. He is sixty-five, his life a “closed fist” whose "strings" he attempts to tug for Chloé’s benefit. His life, he explains, has been one long effort toward safety: a loveless marriage, a demanding profession, emotional detachment from his children. But there is an enormous rent in his life’s fabric: an unexpected love affair, begun at age forty-two. Suddenly Pierre was alive, happy, complete. But he was unable muster the courage to leave his wife and children:

“A thousand times I wanted to and a thousand times I gave it up...I went right to the edge of the abyss, I leaned over, and then I fled. I felt accountable to Suzanne, to the children.” (117)

Later he tells Chloé:

“...I would rather see you suffer a lot today 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...Yes, at my age, I see that a great deal...crushed under the weight of that miserable little thing—their ordinary little life.” (123-4)

Chloé, Pierre observes, is full of life, vibrant, talented. Adrien has done her a favor. She is now free to exercise her repressed artistic abilities, to seize her own happiness, to make more of her life than the majority, himself included, who squander their chances.

Initially Chloé resists. She pointedly enumerates Pierre's many flaws and their effects on Adrien. Pierre is stung, but accepts her allegations: he is indeed a bastard. All the more reason for him to tell the truth. At this, all Chloé can do is sit and listen, glass in hand, as Pierre describes a life compressed into series of tiny boxes.

The decidedly French setting moves the story along: much of it takes place at table, with Chloé's excellent meals interspersed, in a small moment of amusement, at Pierre's maiden cooking attempt:

"It says 'cut the carrots in medium-sized rounds.' Do you think it's good like that?" (21)

Much is made of opening fine bottles of wine, of a meal of gésiers confits with spaghetti. Promises to continue seeing one another center on lunching at a fish restaurant. The meals mark time: the pain of the moment, the promise of a bittersweet future.

Finally, after a night of revelations, Pierre poses a final question: aren't children happier with a happier father?

On this quixotic note the novella ends, leaving the surprised reader sympathizing with the villain. The question leads to the author’s implicit forgiveness, a broadness of vision seldom seen in American marriages—or divorces.

Anna Gavalda: Someone I Loved. Catherine Evans, Translator. New York: Riverhead Books. 2005.


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