February 5, 2007

Suite Française

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
Finished on 2/1/07
Rating: 2.5/5 (Average)

Book Description

By the early l940s, when Ukrainian-born Irène Némirovsky began working on what would become Suite Française—the first two parts of a planned five-part novel—she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz: a month later she was dead at the age of thirty-nine. Two years earlier, living in a small village in central France—where she, her husband, and their two small daughters had fled in a vain attempt to elude the Nazis—she’d begun her novel, a luminous portrayal of a human drama in which she herself would become a victim. When she was arrested, she had completed two parts of the epic, the handwritten manuscripts of which were hidden in a suitcase that her daughters would take with them into hiding and eventually into freedom. Sixty-four years later, at long last, we can read Némirovsky’s literary masterpiece.

The first part, “A Storm in June,” opens in the chaos of the massive 1940 exodus from Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion during which several families and individuals are thrown together under circumstances beyond their control. They share nothing but the harsh demands of survival—some trying to maintain lives of privilege, others struggling simply to preserve their lives—but soon, all together, they will be forced to face the awful exigencies of physical and emotional displacement, and the annihilation of the world they know. In the second part, “Dolce,” we enter the increasingly complex life of a German-occupied provincial village. Coexisting uneasily with the soldiers billeted among them, the villagers—from aristocrats to shopkeepers to peasants—cope as best they can. Some choose resistance, others collaboration, and as their community is transformed by these acts, the lives of these men and women reveal nothing less than the very essence of humanity.

Suite Française is a singularly piercing evocation—at once subtle and severe, deeply compassionate and fiercely ironic—of life and death in occupied France, and a brilliant, profoundly moving work of art.

As I finished the last page of this novel, my first reaction was that of sadness. Of course a story about the horrors of any war is sad, but that wasn’t it. I was sad because I didn’t love it. This is a poignant first-hand narrative that should have moved me in the same manner Eli Weisel’s Night and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief moved me. Instead of shedding tears for the tragic story depicted in Némirovsky’s drama, I felt nothing but relief that I had finally finished reading it.

I rarely ever take the time to read the ancillary material included in a book. (Generally speaking, the novels I tend to read don’t ordinarily include additional material other than, perhaps, an introduction.) However, after reading the publisher’s blurb on the inside jacket, I was compelled to learn more about Némirovsky’s personal story. I started with the Translator’s Note, quickly flipping to the back of the book where I went on to read the Preface to the French Edition (a nine-page history of the author's life, leading up to her deportation to Auschwitz in 1942). I decided to wait to read the two Appendices after completing the novel, just on the chance I might come upon a spoiler. When I did finally read them, I was intrigued by Némirovsky’s notes, which include details of the situation in France (in 1941), as well as her ideas for Suite Française. Fascinating material, particularly those on her writing process. Appendix II is a compilation of Némirovsky’s correspondences (and those of her husband’s, after her arrest). Heartbreaking letters.

Unfortunately, the novel failed to evoke the same emotions I felt while reading about the author’s personal story. Némirovsky peoples the first section of her book with an incredibly large cast of characters. I struggled to keep track of their individual stories and relationships, anticipating how their lives might later intersect, growing more frustrated as I continued to read, losing track of who was who, wishing I had made some sort of a character list.

I’m not sure when I first heard about this novel. Perhaps it was when I read Bookfool’s glowing review, which opens with this beautiful passage:

He wrote with a chewed-up pencil stub, in a little notebook which he had against his heart. He felt he had to hurry: something inside him was making him anxious, was knocking on an invisible door. By writing, he opened that door, he gave life to something that wished to be born. Then suddenly, he would become discouraged, feel disheartened, weary. He was mad. What was he doing writing these stupid stories, letting himself be pampered by the farmer's wife, while his friends were in prison, his despairing parents thought he was dead, when the future was so uncertain, the past so bleak?

Both Bookfool and SuziQOregon have written much more enthusiastic reviews that deserve attention. Not one to enjoy being the odd man out, I have to confess I was relieved to read Dovegreyreader’s recent post, which not only reinforces my opinion, but also includes quite a lively discussion (in the comments section) on the merits of the book (and the hype behind it).

Whether or not you choose to read this highly regarded work, be sure to go here to read the back-story to the novel. Quite touching.


  1. Anonymous6:24 AM

    We have this book in our "recents" section and it has been circulating a lot. I've shelved it several times and glanced at it because the cover was intriguing. Thanks for the review! Looks like I may want to dip into the back sections next time I shelve.

  2. Although I have read a lot of mixed reviews about this book, I still want to read it. I am waiting until it comes out in paper soon. I don't know all the back story, but I am assuming this was something she was working on when she was deported. It sounds like she never really had a chance to go back and really edit or rewrite, so it seems like we are left more with a work in progress than a finished product. I wonder had she lived long enough how the book might have read in the end. In any case I am looking forward to reading it.

  3. Thanks for a well thought out review. You and I ususally agree on books, so I'm curious how I will like this one. Suite Francaise is on my TBR pile for sometime in the next two weeks. I plan to write a review of it, as well. I also hopped over to Dovegray's blog to read her review and all the wonderful comments. No matter how people seemed to feel about the book, they all appear to have been strongly affected.

  4. I've got this one on my pile for later in the year (it's a book group read). I really enjoyed your review and I wonder how I'll react to it.

  5. Thank you. You said exactly what I felt about this book better than I did. The back story behind the book was much better than the actual book and I think it got such rave reviews because of that and I don't think that's fair.

    I guess I was irritated because this novel got a higher ranking at 'Metacritic' than "The Road" which I thought was a vastly superior novel in every way. People just feel really bad about what happened to the author (and I do too), but that doesn't make her book more praiseworthy.

  6. Thanks for this review. I'm still going to read it, but I just finished the Book Thief, and it sounds like I might want to put some time and space in between so I don't do so much comparing.

    I have recently had this experience too, of disliking a book a lot of other people liked. I'm glad to have a balanced view of this book so I don't feel like I'm an idiot if I don't love it!!!

  7. Great comments Les. Wouldn't it be a boring world if we all liked the same thing?

  8. Kay - Glad you enjoyed the review. I highly recommend perusing the appendices and translator's note. I keep meaning to ask you about your job! I'll try to remember in my next email.

    Danielle - I'm glad you're going to go ahead and read the book. I think there's a lot to be said for the fact that it really is an unfinished work. As always, I'll be anxious to read your reveiw!

    Wendy - I'll be interested to read your review in the coming weeks. I think this is one of those books that has a fairly even division amongst its readership.

    Iliana - I wonder, too. In a way, I'm glad I got to it before too many of my blogmates. I probably would have felt even worse had everyone loved it (kind of like The Thirteenth Tale).

    Kookiejar - You're welcome. I'll have to peruse your blog later this evening, but wanted to tell you that we're practically neighbors. I'm in Lincoln. And, by the way, my husband and I love the HBO series Deadwood! Loved looking at your pictures on your other blog. Lucky you!

    Back to your comment... I haven't read The Road, but it's on my TBR list (and my husband's). It sounds like a fabulous book from the reveiws I've read.

    Lisa - I think it might be wise to wait to read this for a little bit. The Book Thief is very much a different read - so emotionally draining - yet so special that it would be a shame to jump right in to another World War II novel. However, they really aren't at all alike, but I can see how it'd be easy to start comparing styles and just the general feel of the books since they are set in the same time frame.

    I'm glad I was able to provide you with a balanced view, but I do hope you wind up enjoying the book. I know how disappointed I am when a book fails me and I'd hate for that to happen when you read it.

    SuziQ - Yah, but I still feel bad when I disagree with some of my favorite bloggers' opinions! :)

  9. Lesley-My husband and I like to take day trips to Lincoln about once a month. (It takes us past the Gretna outlet mall, you know.) I like to get my licorice at Licorice International there in Haymarket. Where's the best place to have lunch in Lincoln?

    Any fan of 'Deadwood' is an instant friend of mine! Best show ever. Ian McShane is a god to me.

    I hope you enjoy 'The Road'.

  10. I had decided after reading a synopsis of this book, to pass on it. Your review helped reinforce that. But your current read looks interesting. I'll look forward to your review on it.

  11. Kookiejar - Oh, there are so many. We love Lazlo's and Vincenzo's (both are in the Haymarket). Mazatlan is great for Mexican. It's north of O Street on 70th.

    Yep, Deadwood is a great show. McShane is awesome.

    Framed - Which current read are you referring to? The gardening one or Tall Pine Polka? I've set the latter aside for now and am now engrossed in Middlesex.

  12. Thanks for the tips. My brother recommended Mazatlan as well.

  13. Hi Les! Well, here is one book I guess we'll disagree on :) I actually was incredibly moved by this "work in progress"....I think I was able to set aside the flaws of a "draft" and surround myself with the emotion behind the story. At times I really felt it was autobiographical, and that was very touching to me (especially reading her notes at the end of the novel). I've reviewed it on my blog. I can understand why some people may be disappointed with the actual rawness of the book...but for me, it is still an important novel to be read.

  14. Wendy - Well, one out of how many? I think we've done pretty well agreeing on most of the books we've both read. And after reading your wonderful review, I'm feeling a bit bad about my negative reaction toward the book. Oh well. Can't love 'em all, can we? And I did enjoy the notes like you, so that's something, right? I'd like to read one of her other novels now. Just to see what one of her polished works is like.

  15. I just read this for my book club (an informal group of bloggers, through Finny Knits). My review is here.
    You're right though, the personal anecdotes and history of the author made it all far more interesting.

  16. Barb - I just read your wonderful review. I agree with your comment about the overwhelming amount of characters to keep track of. You definitely got more out of the narrative than I did and I enjoyed reading all the quotes you included in your review. Almost makes me want to go back and read the book a second time. Almost.

    I'll have to peruse your book review archives. I see you read Shutter Island. I love Lehane and highly recommend his Kenzie/Gennero (sp?) series if you haven't read them yet.

  17. Really glad to have read your review, Les, I think I am going to pass on this book for now.

  18. Thank you, Miss Lotus. I honestly don't think you're going to miss much. Now get back to your vacationing!


I may not answer your comments in a timely fashion, but I always answer. Check back soon!