French Leave by Anna Gavalda

What we were experiencing at that moment–something all four of us were aware of–was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people …

For how much longer will we have the strength to tear ourselves away from everyday life and resist? How often will life give us the chance to play hookey? To thumb our noses at it? Or make our little honorarium on the side? When will we lose one another, and in what way will the ties be stretched beyond repair?

A few weeks ago, I watched a marvellous French film, Je L’Aimais, and on the closing credits, I caught that the film was based on a novel by Anna Gavalda. Off to Wikipedia to discover that Anna Gavalda is a big deal in France, and the good news is that a few of her books have been translated into English. There’s a short story collection: I Wish Someone Were Waiting for me Somewhere, and novels too: Hunting and Gathering (made into the film Ensemble, C’est Tout), Consolation, and Someone I Loved. The latter was the basis for the film Je L’Aimais.

So I picked up French Leave which at 108 pages is a novella. The narrator of the story is twenty-something Garance, who is, as it turns out, one of four siblings–with brothers Simon & Vincent, and older sister Lola. French Leave is a seemingly simple tale which focuses on the events of just a single day. The day is supposed to be a trip to a wedding, and Simon and his wife, Carine give Garance and later Lola, a lift. In the first few pages, the strong characterisations and the bitchy undercurrent between Garance and Carine caught my attention. It seems that Garance and Lola were initially thrilled to welcome Carine, a pharmacist,  to the family:

When we heard about our stroke of luck–that we were about to have a purveyor of anti-wrinkle creams in our family, a licensed Clinique vendor and Guerlain reseller–my sister Lola and I jumped up on her like little puppies. Oh! What a warm welcome we had in store for her that day!

But the romance is over when Carine breaks the news that there will be no discounts for her new sisters-in-law, and from that moment on, Garance and Lola exploit Carine’s predictability by playing some nasty mind games aimed at rattling Carine’s sense of security:

Now we like to ride her about all that. Every time we see her, I tell about my friend, Sandrine who is a flight attendant and the discounts she can get us at the duty-free.

For example:

“Hey Carine … Give me a price for Estée Lauder’s Double Exfoliating Nitrogen Generator with Vitamin B12.”

You should see our Carine, lost in thought. She concentrates, closes her eyes, thinks of her list, calculates her margin, deducts the taxes, and eventually goes: “forty-five?”

I turn to Lola: “Do you remember how much you paid?”

“Hmm … Sorry? What are you talking about?”

“Estée Lauder’s Double Exfoliating Nitrogen Generator with Vitamin B12, the one Sandrine brought back for you the other day?”

“What about it?’

“How much did you pay?”

“Gosh, how do you expect me to remember … around twenty Euros, I think  …”

Carine repeats what she said, choking on her words: “Twenty Euros! Estée Lauder’s D-E-N-G with Vitamin B-12! Are you sure about that!”

The game continues… and it’s always so easy to set up Carine because, according to Garence, she’s so “predictable” and falls for it every time.

While Garance paints a beautifully, although simply detailed picture of her unpleasant sister-in-law (a worrying nag who sits with her knees tightly together), it’s also a reflection back on Garance that she and Lola join forces to pick on Carine. The siblings are very close, and even though circumstance created an entirely different childhood for the younger two siblings (Garence and Vincent) compared to the older two (Vincent & Lola), there are bonds here that newcomers to the family will never fully understand. Perhaps there’s even a faint antagonism towards in-laws in general.

Simon, Lola, & Garence run off to look up Vincent who’s working as a guide at an ancient French chateau, and the four siblings spend one enchanting day together. Author Gavalda argues that while siblings share impenetrable bonds, spouses share experiences and values that siblings cannot fathom. So while Garence and Lola pick at their sister-in-law and fail to understand why their brother tolerates Carine’s pettiness, the sisters are shut out of their brother’s relationship with his wife. Ultimately, French Leave is an exploration of both the depth and the narrowness of familial relationships.

The novella reminded me a great deal of the Bertrand Tavernier film, A Sunday in the Country–perhaps this is due to the emphasis on family relationships, the countryside setting, and the fact that the events take place over the course of a languid day. French Leave is written with a very light touch, and it would be easy to miss this novella’s depth amidst the dialogue. Parts of this seemed so real–the bitchy comments from relatives at the wedding, and the machinations between Lola and Garance. I hope French Leave makes it to film. It’s excellent raw material.

Translated by Alison Anderson


Filed under Fiction, Gavalda Anna

6 responses to “French Leave by Anna Gavalda

  1. Garance and Lola are rather snob names (especially Garance) whereas Carine is really mundane. It was given A LOT to girls born in the 1970s. Carine’s name enforces the idea of a colourless person.

    Yes, Anna Gavalda is a big deal in France. All the people around me who read have read her books. “Je l’aimais” is a really good novel, very sensitive. “Ensemble c’est tout” is good too, the characters are unusual (careful, they talk a lot about food in this one, one of the main characters is a chef). Both were made into a film but “Ensemble c’est tout” was disappointing. I wouldn’t have chosen Audrey Tautou for that part, I think Charlotte Gainsbourg would have been better.
    La Consolante (Consolation) was slapdash work and I couldn’t finish it. I’m not the only one to think it wasn’t good.

    • HA: my French culture consultant. There were some references I wanted to ask about.

      At one point, Garance says that she and Lola are like Montaigne and La Boétie and then goes on to explain differences. What does that comparison mean to you?

      Garance is called Clémence by relatives at the wedding. Is Garance a derivative of the other?

      At another point she mentions a Meetic profile. What’s that?

      Je L’Aimais is due to arrive soon.

      I haven’t seen Ensemble C’est Tout yet, but I noticed that it’s a Claude Berri and I usually like his work.

      At one point, the narrator talks about Carine’s parents and then things make even more sense.

      • Montaigne et La Boetie : BFF. They evoke friendship to me because of their actual friendship and because of the song by Georges Brassens “Les copains d’abord”. (beautiful song about friendship).

        Garance isn’t a derivative of Clémence. That’s a strange change of names. Perhaps Clémence is her second name. Clémence isn’t common for the character’s age but children now have it. (Clément was common among WWI soldiers if I refer to names on war memorials)

        Meetic is a dating website. It’s probably the most famous one in France.

        Ensemble c’est tout (the film) is OK but the book is much better, more subtle on the descriptions of feelings. It’s a real page-turner.

        • I’m wondering if Garence was really Clemence. You see she’s at this wedding and her relatives are poking fun of her sari and her pierced belly button. Then they call her Clemence. I wonder if the inference is that she calls herself something else that she prefers.

  2. I was tempted to buy this several times and think I will eventually do it. Your review makes it sound like one of her good ones.
    I read her short stories and Je l’aimais and found them both very good. I also have Ensemble c’est tout but didn’t get to it yet. When her short stories came out I was really excited, I really loved them. Je l’aimais is like a longer version of one of the stories. It is disappointing to hear that La consolante isn’t as good.

    • I can’t compare this to her others. It did leave me wanting more, but that led to me thinking about other books by the author more than anything else. I think its strongest point is the narrator’s voice which seems so real.

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