Review: Bonjour Tristesse

Bonjour Tristesse - Diane Johnson, Irene Ash, Fran├žoise Sagan

An odd, precocious little novella that seemed like an ideal summer read: prematurely world-weary French girl thwarts her playboy father’s relationship while on vacation on the Riviera and experiencing her own sexual awakening. Sounds just delightfully melodramatic enough. And it’s short. In some ways it was an ideal summer read, being light on any real morality or repercussions, and capturing a certain rootless (and ruthless) charm. I suppose the one lesson to take away from it is don’t be a spoiled brat.


And the narrator-heroine-villain Cecile IS a brat. She does what she wants, when she wants, and no one gets in her way. And yet, at times I did feel a little bad for her. Her father’s decision to marry her deceased mother’s friend Anne Larsen happens-- almost literally--overnight. Immediately Anne begins acting like Cecile’s mother, and in an overbearing way. She means well, but a stepmother (or potential stepmother) can’t simply take over as the mother of a nearly grown teenager and expect no resistance. And Cecile is smart, resourceful, and driven by selfishness- a dangerous combination.


There is little outward plot, as most of the book follows Cecile’s thoughts and plans. She has doubts and regrets about what she is doing, but never truly tries to stop herself. Once things are set in motion, they move inexorably towards the tragedy of the ending, but even that feels very remote and rather bloodless. This novel has a very interior, very philosophical and removed way of describing events, which is the kind of stereotypical aloofness that Americans often associate with the French. So in a way, whether it’s true or not, Bonjour Tristesse is a kind of quintessential French novel for those of us who really haven’t read very much French literature.


(Cross-posted at Goodreads: Bonjour Tristesse)