For our first Book Club selection, I chose Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.
Not only did I find Suite Francaise to be an interesting book, but the story behind how the book was finally brought to light was just as intriguing. After Nemirovsky and her husband, Michel Epstein, were arrested and sent to Auschwitz their two daughters escaped. The youngest of the two grabbed her mothers notebook in the escape, thinking it was her mother’s journal. Neither of the girls had the courage to read what was written within until they decided, 64 years later, to donate it to an organization collecting tidbits from holocaust survivors. Denise Epstein then chose to type the contents for her own records and in doing so discovered it was actually the beginnings of what was to be an epic novel.
Originally meant to be five books long, Suite Francaise has been reduced to two books, Storm in June and Dolce, because of the author’s untimely and tragic death. After reading these first two sections in their unedited form, I am convinced this surely would have been a masterpiece had it been finished.
Of the two books I preferred Storm in June, mostly because I fell in love with the Michauds and because there was more action. Also, because there were so many characters to hate, especially (for me) Madame Pericand. To me, the Pericands personify the French family I’ve been working for during the past seven months. Nemirovsky was able to describe this type of upper class family that feels entitled to everything. The description of her attitude toward her servants on pages 8 and 9 really struck home with me.
One thing I also really liked about this book was that Nemirovsky wasn’t afraid to kill off her characters. Some of them were pretty predictable (and even she questioned them in the notes they found about the book, calling one of the death’s “schmaltzy"), but all the same, I liked that she didn’t try to make everybody live through the war.
I felt like Dolce was too slow moving. But at the same time I think it was reflective of how things really were at that period of time. In Nemirovsky’s notes that followed the book, I could see that she herself was waiting, and during the war it seemed there was nothing to do besides wait and hope for something final.
I have read negative reviews of this book on Amazon. Most of them discuss a lack of solid characters, saying the characters come out very one-dimensional. I disagree. Throughout the book, I felt like I could really see these characters. Yes, perhaps she didn’t go to great lengths to describe each character, instead she allowed the characters’ actions to do the talking.
One thing I would have preferred though would have been to have seen more of the Michauds and other people like them. I felt like there were far too many upper class people in the book, which I think reflects Nemirovsky’s feeling about the way she was treated throughout the war.
One of my favorite quotes from the book comes from Mme Montmort (whose name gets misspelled several times in the book, changing from Montmort to Montfort) on Page 288: “If she drank or had lovers, you could understand her lack of religion, but just imagine, Amaury, the confusion that can be caused in people’s minds when they see virtue practiced by people who are not religious.” (Amaury is Montmort’s husband.)
Overall I found the translation to be good. There were a few mistakes in phrasing and tenses, which showed that the translator was obviously not a native English speaker. Those few errors could have easily been solved though by an editor (if they were a native English speaker). Still, I was amazed at the beauty of the prose, even through a translator. I commend her for doing such a wonderful job.
I highly recommend this book, especially if you’re at all interested in WWII or French history. This was the first time I’d ever read a book about WWII written from the French perspective and I learned a great deal. I also found it more realistic because it was actually written during the war.
One last note and then I’ll shut up. I found it interesting that Nemirovsky chose not to write in any Jewish characters. That was a huge part of the war, and something extremely close to home for her. I’m guessing she didn’t use any Jewish characters because she was worried she wouldn’t be able to write it objectively. Choosing arbitrary characters from other classes perhaps made it easier for her to deflect her own pain? What do you think?
Also, be sure to check out other blog reviews of this book:
The Book Mine Set