Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: Notre Couer

Last night I attended my very first book club ever. It was at Idlewild Books, which is a great independent bookstore here in the city (I wrote about it on She Is Too Fond of Books' weekly Spotlight on Bookstores here). The book of choice was Guy de Maupassant's Alien Hearts from the NYRB imprint (a great imprint that's as compelling as it is pretty). I was no stranger to Maupassant; I'd read Bel Ami for a French literature class in college, but despite the analytical papers I wrote, I remember very little from it. One thing I do remember: Maupassant's works just scream "French," and this one was no different.

The premise of this short novel is pretty simple. It's high-society Paris at the end of the 19th century. AndrĂ© Mariolle is a rich, handsome young man that isn't really doing much aside from enjoying his place in society. He's convinced by a friend to attend an exclusive salon of artist- and intellectual-types, hosted by the magnificent Madame de Burne. She's the type of woman that every man falls in love with, but after an unhappy, abusive first marriage, she refuses to involve herself in any kind of  romantic relationship. Mariolle is determined to resist Madame's spell (a characteristic that initially intrigues her) but with nothing else to do, he quickly succumbs and devotes himself to loving her. Their subsequent affair starts off with a bang but quickly dwindles, leaving each to contemplate their own views on love and relationships.

Lots of people in the book group found this book boring and the characters unlikeable. I didn't really have an opinion when I immediately read it—it wasn't bad but it wasn't great, either. Once we discussed it, though, I liked it a lot more because I got more out of it. Maupassant didn't write this book for great in-depth character development; it's a book of ideas.

First of all, examine this setting: it's a society that's divided by class. Men hold the power, and women have very little of it. Artists and intellectuals have no real place—they're "bourgeois" but at least a little interesting. Associating with them when you're clearly in a much higher class is almost trendy

Then look at Madame de Burne: a miserable first marriage has left her jaded. Sure, she may get off on having all these men fawning over her, but she's honest from the beginning—no relationships, no love. If they keep at it, it's not her fault; she told them she wasn't going to fall in love. She's clearly wealthy and has almost a full-time job in entertaining and maintaining such an image and high-status. She flirted with a relationship with Mariolle, which seemed more of a personal experiment than anything—testing the waters to see if she could do the relationship thing. But in a time when women need to marry for status, she already has it and without a husband. So what would she gain from a marriage she's not really into? Nothing. She's in a good place, personally, so why rock that boat? 

Finally, Mariolle: love to him is just something to do. Maybe his heart is genuinely in it, but there's a point where it just gets pathetic and you can't feel much sympathy. Certainly a rejection will sting, but can it really be heart-breaking when your feelings were never reciprocated? He does, however, represent that feeling of hope when you're trying to get a relationship to go the way you want it. You justify actions and words, choosing to believe what you want to believe, with the hope that the person is going to suddenly change and love you right back.

It may not have been the most compelling story to read, but it had a lot there. It's a story that would translate well to any medium set in any time, because the emotions are universal and very relatable. Have you seen (500) Days of Summer? Because that is a case in point.


softdrink said...

A book club at Idlewild?? Sooo jealous!

Salvatore said...

It kind of sounds like fun. I haven't seen (500) Days of Summer though. And I've never read this author before.