From reading her earlier works, such as Suite Francaise, the novella David Golder and Fire in the Blood I expected a sharper take on the bourgeois people and customs of the northern coast of France. She treats them with unexpected delicacy and even handedness.
Arranged marriages are common among the prosperous bourgeoisie, yet Pierre Hardelot defies his family (led by his iron-fisted grandfather) and breaks an engagement to a suitable young lady to marry a girl considered beneath their station. The novel then follows Pierre and Agnes, their families, friends and rivals in the village of Saint-Elme as they face a changing world. The younger Hardelots have moved to Paris and live with his parents when the war breaks out. Pierre is called up and for a time his wife,mother and father remain in Paris but when bombs finally fall on the great city (one such killing his father as he is at mass) the women return to Saint-Elme. By the war’s end, their village is all but destroyed but they set about rebuilding it and their own lives and fortunes. Some of the restrictions of class and familial obligation are eased but life in the village is really not that different. The same petty jealousies and rivalries continue on.
Then the threat of war again. At first it is treated with a kind of denial, no, it can’t possibly happen again. Surely the powers that be will recognize that and come to some bloodless resolution. Then as Hitler’s army comes inexorably at them, Pierre worries how his son Guy and his generation will be able to fight:
“In 1914 we were innocent as newborn babies. We went off cocksure. But they…..they know all our sacrifies were useless, that victory conquered no one; they’ve read, or seen, or have heard everything that happened then and since then-how do you think they are supposed to bear it?”
The book closes in the early years of the second world war, as the German occupation settles in. Agnes returns to Saint-Elme to be reunited with Pierre. Though the village is in ruins once again, he assures her that they will rebuild, get through this together, survive.
“She had gathered in all the good things of the world, and all the bitterness, and all the sweetness of the earth had borne fruit. They would live out the rest of their days together.”
While the writing was lovely, I just couldn’t bring myself to care too much about the characters in this book. For me, the characters and the book did not have the passion, drive and dark humor of her other writings and I found it hard to connect to. Still, I’m glad to have read it. Perhaps you will be, too.