This is a review of the English translation of a French novel.
Sometimes, it can be good when school forces me to read a book. College and grad school have helped me discover many amazing stories that I never would have picked up on my own. Other times, (okay, most times) forced school reads are awful slogs that I wish I’d never laid eyes on. For me, The Lover is closer to the second category than the first. I didn’t hate it, but it’s not my kind of book.
The Lover is a semi-autobiographical novel set in French Indochina. The narrator, a young French girl who is based on the author, has a terrible home life. Her father is dead, her mother struggles with a serious mental illness, and her older brother is a tyrant with a gambling addiction. One day, the teenage narrator meets a wealthy Chinese businessman. They are both intrigued by each other and quickly begin a sexual relationship. Their sexual encounters are illegal (because of her age) and socially unacceptable (because they are different races and classes). The affair grows into something that will haunt both of them for the rest of their lives.
“Suddenly, all at once, she knows, knows that he doesn't understand her, that he never will, that he lacks the power to understand such perverseness. And that he can never move fast enough to catch her.” - The Lover
I’m a book structure junkie. I love books with intricate structures that make me work to figure them out. This novel definitely has a challenging structure. I had to read the whole book twice before I felt like I fully understood it. The narrator is an old woman who is looking back at her childhood, so the timeline jumps unexpectedly between the past and present. There are a lot of plot tangents and random details. Most of the characters are unnamed, events are alluded to but not explained, and the narrator often talks about herself in third person. I read the book once to sort out the structure and once to understand the story. If you want to read this one, be prepared to work a little.
I actually really like the structure. It makes the novel feel like a diary, or like the reader is delving in and out of an old woman’s fragmented memories. The writing style is too ornate and repetitive for my tastes, but there is some beautiful description. I especially like how the narrator talks about herself:
“It has been my face. It's got older still, of course, but less, comparatively, than it would otherwise have done. It's scored with deep, dry wrinkles, the skin is cracked. But my face hasn't collapsed, as some with fine features have done. It's kept the same contours, but its substance has been laid waste. I have a face laid waste.” - The Lover
“I know it's not clothes that make women beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams, nor the distinction of costliness of their finery. I know the problem lies elsewhere. I don't know where. I only know it isn't where women think.” - The Lover
My biggest issue with this book is that the story didn’t hold my attention. This novel is tiny (about 130 pages), and there is a lot going on. There’s political unrest in Indochina, the narrator has severe family issues, she’s involved in a forbidden affair, she’s discovering her sexuality, and she may (possibly?) have a crush on a female classmate. That’s a lot to cram into 130 pages. The author didn’t get deep enough into any of these issues to hook me. I never grew to care about the narrator or her problems. Everything seems very detached and surface-level, which is probably what the author intended, but it led to me getting bored. Quickly.
I can appreciate this book, and I think I know what other people love about it, but it didn’t quite work for me.