Suite Francaise is a book I have hiding somewhere in my closet. I bought the hardcover long ago…opened it, closed it, put it in the closet and that’s been about what? 5 years now? Longer? I am now going to retrieve it from the deep, dark depths of my closet because I know now it will most certainly not be a disappointing read. I’m unsure as to why I left it so long ago without actually reading. Actually, I think I’m going to have it read to me again by Eleanor Bron. I know she is the narrator for Suite Francaise and she did such a lovely job for All Our Worldly Goods. (If you do get the chance to read it, I do recommend listening to the audiobook.)
I found All Our Worldly Goods on audiobook CD at the library and was intrigued by the description. I know that Némirovsky received wonderful reviews, plus, she lived through this. And listening to All Our Worldly Goods ensured that we as listeners/readers received a solid dose of life between the two World Wars, from the point of view of the upper, old money clan. She has written passages that place you right there in the thick of it for the everyday person enduring this wretched and unstable time. Her writing of the every day life during and in between the world wars is something to savour. It is also a fascinating history lesson in the daily details of things that I never even thought about. (For instance, church goers would have to sit through their Sunday sermons with gas masks on due to the ever-impending gas attacks WWI.)
At the same time I was listening to this, I was also reading All that I Am, by Anna Funder and both opened my eyes to the plight of the soldiers post-WWI. Némirovsky has just exquistely detailed how soliders coming home from the war were no longer acclaimed. “They do not want to see us, we remind them of what they no longer want to think of, they want us to no longer exist. (Pierre, All Our Worldly Goods)” I’m struck by how both authors have written to draw attention to the now unwanted heroes – hide the maimed and as Pierre Hardelot has said, no longer to exist. Also, how both writers touched on the belief that another world war would never occur in their lifetime.
Synopsis from Goodreads: First published in France in 1947, after the author’s death, it is a gripping story of family life and star-crossed lovers, set in France between 1910 and 1940. Pierre and Agnes marry for love against the wishes of his parents and the family patriarch, the tyrannical industrialist Julien Hardelot, provoking a family feud which cascades down the generations. Full of drama and heartbreak, and telling observations of the devastating effects of two wars on a small town and an industrial family, Némirovsky is at the height of her powers. Taut, evocative and beautifully paced, the novel points out with heartbreaking detail and clarity how close those two wars were, how history repeated itself, tragically and shockingly. The story opens in the Edwardian era, on a fashionable Normandy beach and ends with a changed world under Nazi occupation.
So now you can see why it was such an intriguing description for me, right? Family saga, World Wars, patriarchs, defiant lovers? And the audiobook did not disappoint. I do have to say it was very “Downton-esque” in that the story may not be heavy in plot, yet it is so, so wonderful in the generational family saga. It starts just prior to WWI and in to the lives of the Hardelot’s. At the helm is Julien Hardelot, elderly partriarch and owner of the Hardelot factory and chateau, a behind the scenes ruler of their country village, St-Elme, if you imagine. Julien has arranged the marriage of his only grandson Pierre to a woman that Pierre does not love, but comes from good old family stock and money and with a personality that matches old Julien’s. Pierre loves Agnes however, and following the engagement party for Simone and Pierre, decides to go against the iron-fisted tyrant and marry Agnes. (Listening to Bron’s French lilt with the names and places is so worth the listen by the way – you must pronounce Agnes as Anesse to get an idea.)
Cut off from the family wealth, Pierre and Agnes continue to live a happy life despite the reproach and following Pierre’s service in WWI, have two children, Guy and Charlotte. Julien has kept his word with regards to Pierre but has put a twist to the family in that he leaves the factory and chateau for Simone to run. Simone is filled with a lifetime of resentment and jealousy for Pierre and his betrayal. During the Depression era, fueled by this resentment, she cuts Pierre out of the family’s factory and banishes him from St-Elme. She marries a philandering Parisian- after her money only – and has but one child, a daughter, Rose.
The story moves along at a brisk pace and turns full circle, for at the start of another world war (the one that no one believed could ever truly occur), Rose and Pierre and Agnes’ son, Guy defy Simone and marry. Enraged, Simone cuts Rose off from receiving her dowry and Guy finds himself off to serve in WWII. The saga ends with Simone reconciling while WWII is in full swing in France, as the bombs destroy St-Elme and the Hardelot factory. It wraps up wonderfully with Pierre and Agnes’ declaration of their time-tested love which has always given them the strength to survive anything put in their way.
The whole tale makes for wonderful listening. I thoroughly enjoyed the commute to work listening in on the Hardelot’s life and I suppose it did give considerable respite in my Downton withdrawl. Némirovsky has spun a beautiful saga and coupled with Bron’s narration is lined with many golden moments. I do recommend!
Némirovsky, herself, is an incredibly fascinating woman with the unfortunate and all to often heartwrenching tale for the Jews in her era. She died in 1942, one month after her arrival at Auschwitz. There is a website dedicated to her, and you can find more information of her here. I now cannot wait to read Suite Francaise and also for her “latest”, brought to publication by her daughter, Denise in 2006 entitled, Fire in the Blood.
Pictures below show Irene and her daughter Denise: