The title perfectly captures the tone of French author Alard’s second novel, which examines a marriage in crisis as if it were a working, or perhaps broken, machine.
In 2003, techie Juliette and her husband, Olivier, are the Parisian equivalents of Brooklynites, raising their two adored children in a formerly rough but gentrifying Parisian neighborhood where they are surrounded by a circle of like-minded, urbane friends. Then Olivier announces that for three weeks he’s been sleeping with a socialist politician he met in his work as a reporter. Olivier says he wants to stay married but needs time to break things off with emotionally fragile Victoire. Juliette hasn’t forgotten that days after their first kiss, Olivier betrayed her by meeting another woman; he and Juliette didn’t get back together for three years. Looking back, it would be easy to blame Olivier for his pattern of betrayal, but as he and Juliette struggle to repair their relationship, overtly simple explanations become tangled in the complexity of their connection to and resentments against each other. Olivier has acted abominably and remains difficult to trust, but Juliette—despite a history that includes her father’s abandonment when she was 5, an abortion, and a rape—refuses to let anyone consider her a victim. As much as she wants to fall to pieces, she doesn’t. Alard records the couple’s evolution moment to moment—internal thoughts, endless conversations, and a range of telling gestures—in obsessively minute detail. For Juliette, sex becomes an expression of feelings but also a tool. Olivier backslides with phone calls and meetings that he at first hides from Juliette as he gradually disengages from Victoire. Page by page, the marriage’s survival is uncertain.
More jaded and demanding than most American domestic tragicomedies, this novel packs a surprising emotional wallop, raising questions about the natures of passion and marriage within the context of early-21st-century French politics with references to France’s Muslim veil controversy and Simone de Beauvoir.