Winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, this unsentimental account of a sexually unhappy young wife is half Madame Bovary, half The Story of O.
Nina, the narrator of this slender but biting novel, is the daughter of a needy mother and the wife of a stolid, self-reliant, sexually conservative husband. With him, Nina works at a news kiosk in Paris during the week and entertains her mother and her inlaws on weekends. Nina’s life is colorless and uneventful, her relationship to her husband and her family routine and unsurprising. One afternoon, working alone at the kiosk, Nina begins to fantasize about her male customers. She makes a rapid progression from fantasy to reality, meeting several of them for illicit trysts. With her lovers, she becomes a new woman, one capable of dominating men and surprising herself with her sexual imagination. She grows aware of what she doesn’t have at home, but remains almost entirely ignorant of how to get it. When she tries her new sophistication on her husband, he is by turns disgusted and saddened. The real twist here comes when Nina disguises herself as a Chinese woman and meets her own husband in the darkness of a movie house. Her affair with her own husband is what finally drives a wedge between the two. Although the story’s plot is fantastical, Dorner’s writing is hypnotic. Nina’s voice—at turns joyless, curious, tentative and despairing—is utterly believable, and the spare descriptions of a deteriorating marriage are compelling. This is not a story about a woman’s sexual awakening, nor is it a morality tale about the dangers of sexual fantasy. Rather, it is a sophisticated, stylish meditation about the unexpected connections between longing and sex, and about the impossibility of really knowing even those people to whom we are most attached.
A grim, sharp-edged look at the emotional emptiness of marital intimacy.