A bestselling French writer—or at least the novelized version of a bestselling French writer—reckons in older age with a passionate affair he had as a young man.
Written in an almost confessional first-person, Besson’s (His Brother, 2005, etc.) latest is a French bestseller set in the mid-1980s in a small, "gray" Bordeaux town “doomed to disappear.” The narrator, an ambitious high school student and son of the principal, falls deeply for a fellow student, the “slender and distant” Thomas Andrieu, a character in the novel but also apparently an actual person to whom the novel is dedicated. Thomas is beautiful but not worldly; he’s a sensitive, stunted stud who doesn’t see a way out of the town. Different as he and the narrator are, they nonetheless initiate an affair that takes place in hidden rooms on campus and at the narrator’s home when his parents aren’t around. Besson’s initial reluctance to put names to their sex acts (“I am enthralled by his sex," the narrator writes, as if it’s 1822) feels musty, though the author does get more descriptively honest as the story progresses. The love between the two feels real and memorable, and Besson is a thoughtful writer who can strike home with vivid imagery, particularly as he and Thomas age and grow apart and Thomas’ son, Lucas, develops a friendship of sorts with the narrator. The only quibble is that this book, which is deftly translated, doesn’t exactly feel like a novel; it reads like a memoir. In fact, the only thing that keeps it from being garden-variety autofiction is Besson’s willingness to wink at his decision to make fictional an experience that seems to be based in reality.
An insightful reminder that in the years before gay dating apps zapped the mystery out of erotic pursuit, love between even mismatched men could be lifesaving.