Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan review

It seems sacrilegious that I have never read any Françoise Sagan before this point but it’s true. She has been an author I’ve heard many things about yet never picked up one of her novels before. Until now, when I found a copy of Bonjour Tristesse translated by Heather Lloyd. This tells of Cécile, a teenager whose carefree lifestyle with her father turns upside down when he decides to marry an old family friend. Frightened that she could be losing the life she has always known, Cécile plans to break them up. This edition also includes Sagan’s second novel, A Certain Smile, which follows Dominique, a law student living in Paris who embarks on an affair with an older man. I’ll discuss both novels separately and then give my overall thoughts at the end.

I really enjoyed Bonjour Tristesse. Any book set in France is a massive plus for me, but I loved Sagan’s writing style and the way she captured the south of the country. Her word choice was so lyrical and evoked lazy days lying on a beach. The character of Cécile was also really well done. Despite her terrible actions, she always seemed relatable in some way. You understood her motivations and the reasons behind her actions, even though in some ways she is an unreliable narrator. Her relationship with Anne, her father’s fiancée, was a definite highlight. It is a very love/hate relationship, and Sagan captures that complexity perfectly.  As a reader, my feelings towards Anne changed throughout as you saw different aspects of her character and the women’s conversations with one another. The dynamic between Cécile and Anne was far more interesting than any other in the book, including Cécile’s with her father, so I was glad that was explored in depth.

Whilst I did like Bonjour Tristesse, I am not convinced of A Certain Smile. This is perhaps more of a character study than the first, especially since there is hardly any plot. Student has an affair with an older man. That’s it. Yet the character of Dominique wasn’t compelling enough to carry a novella on its own. There felt like a distance between her and the reader, making her harder to relate to or have any feelings towards. She also comes across as quite aloof at points which also made it hard to have any connection with her. Her quoting of famous authors such as Shakespeare and Sartre made her seem more pretentious than intelligent, but perhaps that was the intention.  I also didn’t buy her relationship with Luc. Neither seemed like attractive people so it left me wondering a) what did the other characters see in them and b) why were they so drawn to one another in the first place. Sagan’s writing is just as beautiful as before, but the characters let the book down and I was left feeling underwhelmed.

It is obvious why Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile were included together. They share a lot of the same themes and even the characters seem similar, eg. Cécile’s father and Luc. But whilst Bonjour Tristesse was very compelling with great characters, stunning setting, and gorgeous writing, A Certain Smile fell flat. This was due to characterisation (or in Luc’s case, a lack of) and whilst Sagan’s writing prowess is on full display, it didn’t safe the book from becoming dull. I’m now tempted to try Sagan’s short stories to see if they work better for me than her novels.

Bonjour Tristesse is published by Penguin and you can find more information here

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing German author Hans Fallada’s classic Alone in Berlin (or Every Man Dies Alone). It is partly based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel. Here, the names are Otto and Anna Quangel, a working class couple living in Berlin in 1940. Their lives are changed forever when they received word that their son has been killed in battle. Distraught and angry, the couple begin to leave postcards around the city, criticising the Nazi government and encouraging people to resist. The novel also follows Inspector Escherich, the man in charge of discovering who has been leaving these cards.

Alone in Berlin starts off slow, and the pacing at the beginning is my main criticism. Whilst I understand this time is used to introduce us to the characters and the climate of fear they live in, at times I felt myself wondering how much of this was useful. This could also be due to the fact that it is a translated work (Michael Hofmann translating here) which might explain why I found some of the sentences at the beginning a bit awkward. Perhaps reading the book in German might have given a different experience. Yet, the characters got under my skin. I started to become invested in these people, and the book started to pick up speed. At the end, I couldn’t put it down.

Whilst the Quangels are the main characters, Fallada also follows several others. He gives a real sense of the community they live in and develops these secondary characters really well. It makes the reader engage more with the plot, because you witness how one person’s actions affects the others, sometimes being fatal. It also adds to the tension and the oppressive atmosphere of the piece, another aspect that Fallada executes brilliantly. There is a creeping sense of dread that permeates throughout, making the reader uncomfortable at moments yet a necessary addition. It helps place the reader in the characters’ shoes, and helping to make their actions understandable.

Alone in Berlin is a slow, absorbing read. Whilst I had a few quibbles at the beginning of the book, they were completely forgotten by the end. I was hooked in by the characters, as well as Fallada’s atmospheric writing – he places the reader directly in wartime Berlin. At times, it is a tense, depressing read, due obviously to the subject matter, yet a message of hope is present throughout. This is my second time reading Alone in Berlin, but I highly doubt it will be my last.

Alone in Berlin is published by Penguin and you can find more information here