A woman comes of age—and then ages—against the backdrop of a changing France.
When we meet Simone Clermont (nee Vidal, soon to be Melville), she has returned to her mother’s guesthouse, now a mother herself, leaving her engineer husband behind in Istanbul in order to protect their baby from the fevers that are going around in Turkey after the First World War. She is restless and unfulfilled, though not without appetites, and when Jacques Melville and his old university friend arrive at the Vidal doorstep seeking a room for the night, the course of her future is set in motion. What begins as an affair—both of them are married—gives way to an all-consuming passion and then a bohemian life together in Paris, Simone as the mistress, Jacques slow to disentangle himself completely from his wife. But even when they do marry, Jacques remains removed and unknowable; they are simultaneously deeply intimate and total strangers to each other. They are devoted but not faithful, parts of themselves and their lives untouchable by the other. Simone will be active in the French Resistance and witness the unspeakable; Jacques will take a mistress; Simone will find comfort in sex with other, also-unknowable men. But the men—and not just one-offs, but the ones who matter, Jacques and Simone’s late-in-life lover, Pierre, and even her beloved son, Marcel—are peripheral to the novel’s primary relationship, which is between Simone and herself. Finger’s writing about the female body—not the experience of looking at it but the experience of having one—is visceral. And it is that body—lush, pregnant, starving, aging, ailing—that is the driving force of Simone’s life. The rich poetry of Finger’s (Bone Truth, 1994, etc.) language sometimes veers toward the overwrought—occasionally, it feels like the novel may buckle under its own weight—but the book’s originality, and its boldness, makes it impossible to turn away.
Ambitious and demanding; one of a kind.