I encountered this book on recommendation from a friend, who bought me the English translation. However, I make a point of reading French works in the original wherever possible, and fortunately I was able to find a copy at my local library. It would be interesting to pick up the version she gave me and see how it matches up to my interpretation.
Like Nabokov’s Lolita or Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Bonjour Tristesse is less about the story it tells than the person telling it. The narrator, a world-weary seventeen-year-old named Cécile, vacations with her father and his young girlfriend Elsa on the French Riviera. Their peaceful equilibrium is shattered by the arrival of Anne, an attractive and intelligent woman who is a friend of the family through her father’s late wife. Her father soon leaves Elsa for Anne, who insists that Cécile show greater ambition for her studies. Cécile, incensed, resolved to break them up.
Aside from a budding romance with a neighbourhood boy, this is about all the plot the book has to offer. As a storyline, it’s pretty trite, but where the book rises above its tropes is in the complex and partially unspoken feelings that Cécile has for Anne. A more straightforward story would paint Anne as the villain, or at least in the wrong, or flip it by making her misunderstood and forcing Cécile to learn the error of her ways. But while Cécile does show regret for her actions, it is the ambivalence of her attitude that makes her intriguing. She slingshots between crushing doubt and steely resolve over and over again.
As a reader, I find first person perspective to be overused and often misapplied, but this is a book that simply couldn’t work any other way. The story only matters because we hear Cécile telling it. Without direct access to the riptide of her adolescent angst. As I learned my French more through reading than conversation, I struggle to pinpoint accuracy in dialogue, and the fact that this book is written in the voice of a French teenager form the 1950s, I am simply too far removed to argue whether or not that it rings true. I can only say that it flows nicely, and that its flights of poetic fancy are modest enough to avoid the pitfall common to first person books, in which the author adopts a tone too elevated to belong to a casual speaker.