A youth in postwar Paris discovers that his imaginary older brother is real.
Psychoanalyst Grimbert’s autobiographical novel was originally published in France as Un Secret. The young protagonist, Philippe Grimbert, is anguished by his spindly legs and barrel chest, especially compared to the flawless physiques of his parents: Tania, a champion diver and legendary beauty, and Maxime, a bodybuilder and former Paris playboy. Philippe believes that his parents weathered the Nazi occupation by vacationing in a bucolic village, Saint-Gaultier, as guests of a kindly colonel. He also believes he’s an only child. Early on, though, Philippe intuits a suppressed past. He was christened late for a Catholic child and his parents possess a samovar and a menorah. When he finds a toy dog in the attic, his parents display alarm, especially when he names it “Si.” Philippe invents an older brother who, unlike himself, is a schoolyard hero. He overhears rumors that his surname is really Grinberg. His adored father has always seemed vaguely disappointed in him, which Philippe chalks up to his weakling’s frame. When he is 15, he sees a documentary depicting horrific scenes from the Holocaust, and a family friend, Louise, feels compelled to tell Philippe the truth. We learn, along with Philippe, that his parents were each married before; Maxime to Hannah, daughter of a prosperous Lyonnais shopkeeper, and Tania to Hannah’s brother. Hannah and Maxime’s son Simon was everything Philippe imagined: athletic and handsome. Knowing that Maxime was obsessed with Tania, Hannah grew jealous and tragedy ensued. A sense of incipient dread, nimbly conveyed by McLean’s translation, pervades the novel. Although revelations are heavily foreshadowed, suspense is sustained by Philippe’s growing awareness of the fault lines running through his parents’ lives.