In the tradition of novels about intense, artistic female friendships, Nothomb's light-hearted latest features flamboyant characters and copious drinking of champagne.
Nothomb (Hygiene and the Assassin, 2010, etc.) has published more than 20 other novels, which is startling because this one reads like a fledgling effort. The writing feels cursory, and the story doesn’t acquire even the depth needed to be a good farce. The novel (or novella—it’s only 128 pages) is narrated by a writer, also named Amélie Nothomb, with a devotion to drinking bubbly. There’s a pleasant description of her introduction to it—“I looked into the darkest place and I saw, and heard, jewels. Their multiple fragments tinkled with precious gems, with gold and silver”—but after that poetic start, Nothomb’s lyricism seems exhausted. At a reading, the narrator is approached by Pétronille, a sexually ambiguous waif who greatly intrigues her. When she deduces that Pétronille likes to drink, the two quickly develop a friendship, with the older Amélie both revered and mocked by her irreverent wild-child friend. This is a promising setup but nothing interesting—little conflict, seemingly no intimacy—develops between them. And Nothomb’s flat writing doesn’t create any buoyancy for her story. For instance, Amélie goes to London to interview the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and, after an unhappy experience with her, invites Pétronille to join her. The women visit the British Museum, and Nothomb writes: “We agreed to meet in Mesopotamia at noon. It’s not every day you can schedule a meeting in such a place.” The second sentence dulls the lightness of the first and is characteristic of a novel that seems to state the obvious at every turn. From a skiing trip in the Alps to a crisis where Pétronille resents her own status as a minor author, nothing is rendered with either enough wit or depth to be entertaining.
It’s puzzling what Nothomb’s purpose was with this novel, but it feels like such a hasty job that one isn’t tempted to spend much time figuring it out.